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Next Stop: Pluto!
By Alexandra Cale

New Horizons spacecraft
Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon.
(Photo: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research)
Thursday, January 19—What is shaped like a piano, weighs as much as a fully-grown moose, but is faster than a speeding bullet? The latest NASA space probe, scheduled to take off for Pluto on Thursday.

The launch has already been delayed twice. It was originally scheduled for Tuesday, then again for Wednesday. Despite weather and power problems, NASA officials are confident of a launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this week. Blasting off into space atop an Atlas V rocket, the probe will be the fastest spacecraft this solar system has ever seen.

The probe is appropriately named New Horizons as it is headed for a never-before-seen destination: Pluto. Pluto is the only planet in our solar system that has not been studied. It has been argued over, however. Some scientists say that Pluto is not even a planet, but an orbiting asteroid. The space probe may answer that question.

"This is one of the most important regions of the solar system," said scientist Hal Weaver. "It hasn't been explored yet, and New Horizons is going to be the first mission to go out there and look at it up close and personal."

The three-billion-mile journey is expected to take at least nine years. The Atlas V will take off at a record-breaking 36,000 miles per hour, bypassing the Earth's moon in just nine hours. Thirteen months later, New Horizons will arrive at Jupiter, where it will use the enormous planet's gravity to propel it toward Pluto at an astonishing 47,000 mph. This "slingshot" effect will reduce the length of the trip by up to five years.

The piano-shaped probe is only about the size of a baby grand, but it comes with powerful features. There are seven instruments aboard New Horizons specially designed to photograph and study Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Scientists also hope to learn more about Pluto's neighborhood, the Kuiper Belt, which is an area in space packed with asteroids.

"It is fantastically interesting to me to have a chance maybe within my lifetime for scientists to see up close what those objects look like and to begin our reconnaissance of that region of space," said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.