Preparing New Horizons: Obstacle Operations Planned Ahead Of Pluto Contact
October 16, 2012

Preparing New Horizons: Obstacle Operations Planned Ahead Of Pluto Contact

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is nearly seven years into its 9.5-year journey across the solar system to explore Pluto and its moons, but that journey is still far from over.

As the spacecraft travels through space, its team has become aware of the possibility that dangerous debris may be orbiting in the Pluto system.

"We've found more and more moons orbiting near Pluto -- the count is now up to five," Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, said in a press release. "And we've come to appreciate that those moons, and those not yet discovered there, act as debris generators that populate the Pluto system with shards from small, colliding Kuiper Belt objects."

New Horizons Project Scientist Dr. Hal Weaver said because the spacecraft is traveling so fast, a collision with a single pebble could cripple or destroy it. This means the science team behind New Horizons needs to ensure they steer clear of any debris zones around Pluto, he added.

The team is already using every tool available to search for debris in the dwarf planet's orbit. They are also plotting alternative, more distant courses through the Pluto system that would preserve most of the science mission, but avoid deadly collisions.

"We're worried that Pluto and its system of moons, the object of our scientific affection, may actually be a bit of a black widow," Stern said in the release.

The New Horizons spacecraft is  traveling at more than 30,000 miles per hour towards Pluto and its moon system.

"We're making plans to stay beyond her lair if we have to," Deputy Project Scientist Dr. Leslie Young of Southwest Research Institute, said in the press release. "From what we have determined, we can still accomplish our main objectives if we have to fly a 'bail-out trajectory' to a safer distance from Pluto."

Although the team would prefer to get closer, she noted that going farther from Pluto is preferable to running through a dangerous debris field.

"We may not know whether to fire our engines on New Horizons and bail out to safer distances until just 10 days before reaching Pluto, so this may be a bit of a cliff-hanger. Stay tuned," Stern said in the release.