New Horizons Space Probe Scans Pluto for Undiscovered Moons and Rings

NASA’s New Horizons probe spacecraft is on the last leg of its exploratory journey to Pluto. The probe, launched in January, 2006, is set to fly past the dwarf planet on July 14th. New Horizons was NASA’s fastest-launched craft, and now has a speed of 32,570 kilometers per hour on its trajectory. It is now searching for any previously undiscovered moons or rings, as well as space debris that may pose threats to its safety. Undiscovered could shed dust into the probe’s path, which would be unfortunate. Although the craft is protected by Kevlar armor, even a piece of debris the size of a pebble could lead to disaster due to the high velocity of the impact.


The New Horizons team has few options to deal with dangerous particles

If a possible peril is detected, New Horizons has two defenses. The less viable option would be to point its antenna forward and use it as a shield. This would limit the field of data collection greatly, since researchers wouldn’t have the ability to scan with the antenna in a direction of their choosing. The preferred option is to change the craft’s course, placing it on one of three alternative trajectories. Two of the trajectories are very slight adjustments, but the third would send New Horizons much closer to Pluto and within the orbit of Charon, one of its moons. Scientists say the last course would be a sort of last resort, as it would restrict the amount and quality of data collected. The camera is calibrated to work from a certain distance, and getting too close would likely render blurry, poor-quality photos.


Yet, scientists remain optimistic about the journey’s last phase

Despite the hazards the craft may face from undiscovered moons, rings, and space debris, mission team members say that New Horizons’ current trajectory seems secure. Computer models all say that the chances of losing the probe due to a debris collision are small, far less than one percent. Even if changes have to be made to the trajectory or the position of the antenna, odds are that this would lead to slightly less, and less useful, data collection, not total mission failure.