Nine years after launching on an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, NASA’s New Horizons space probe has begun preliminary observations of the Plutonian system ahead of the probe’s arrival and first-ever human object flyby of the dwarf planet in July.
Mission conception and construction:
The New Horizons mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program and a mission that stemmed from the cancellation of the Pluto Fast Flyby and Pluto Kuiper Express missions.
The Pluto Fast Flyby mission was part of a concerted effort by NASA to study Pluto’s atmosphere before it froze to the ground as Pluto moved further away from the Sun in its orbit.
The mission was originally set to launch in 2000 and reach Pluto by 2010; however, the mission was canceled due to lack of funding.
Following cancellation of this mission, a replacement mission called Pluto Kuiper Express was conceived.
This mission would have seen a probe fly by the Pluto-Charon system and at least one other large object in the Kuiper belt.
Pluto Kuiper Express was designed to reach the Pluto-Charon system by 2012 or 2013 and would have mapped Pluto’s surface and examined the Plutonian system’s geology and geomorphology.
Unlike the Pluto Fast Flyby mission which would have reached the then-planet in 2010, a 2012 or 2013 arrival of the Pluto Kuiper Express mission would have made a determination of the composition of Pluto’s atmosphere far more difficult because the planet’s atmosphere would have begun to freeze to the ground as Pluto moved further away from the Sun in its orbit.
Regardless, NASA canceled the Pluto Kuiper Express mission in 2000 for budgetary reasons.
The cancellation of this mission triggered a three-month concept study in 2001 for missions to Pluto. Two mission concepts were studied: New Horizons and POSSE (Pluto and Outer Solar System Explorer).
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SOURCE: NASA SpaceFlight