Space Science Reviews

, Volume 140, Issue 1, pp 3-21

First online:

The New Horizons Pluto Kuiper Belt Mission: An Overview with Historical Context

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NASA’s New Horizons (NH) Pluto–Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission was selected for development on 29 November 2001 following a competitive selection resulting from a NASA mission Announcement of Opportunity. New Horizons is the first mission to the Pluto system and the Kuiper belt, and will complete the reconnaissance of the classical planets. New Horizons was launched on 19 January 2006 on a Jupiter Gravity Assist (JGA) trajectory toward the Pluto system, for a 14 July 2015 closest approach to Pluto; Jupiter closest approach occurred on 28 February 2007. The ∼400 kg spacecraft carries seven scientific instruments, including imagers, spectrometers, radio science, a plasma and particles suite, and a dust counter built by university students. NH will study the Pluto system over an 8-month period beginning in early 2015. Following its exploration of the Pluto system, NH will go on to reconnoiter one or two 30–50 kilometer diameter Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) if the spacecraft is in good health and NASA approves an extended mission. New Horizons has already demonstrated the ability of Principal Investigator (PI) led missions to use nuclear power sources and to be launched to the outer solar system. As well, the mission has demonstrated the ability of non-traditional entities, like the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to explore the outer solar system, giving NASA new programmatic flexibility and enhancing the competitive options when selecting outer planet missions. If successful, NH will represent a watershed development in the scientific exploration of a new class of bodies in the solar system—dwarf planets, of worlds with exotic volatiles on their surfaces, of rapidly (possibly hydrodynamically) escaping atmospheres, and of giant impact derived satellite systems. It will also provide other valuable contributions to planetary science, including: the first dust density measurements beyond 18 AU, cratering records that shed light on both the ancient and present-day KBO impactor population down to tens of meters, and a key comparator to the puzzlingly active, former dwarf planet (now satellite of Neptune) called Triton which is in the same size class as the small planets Eris and Pluto.


Pluto New Horizons Mission Kuiper belt