Today in Houston History: New Horizons Launches in Mission to Pluto

new horizons history pluto

Getty People pose for photos as they celebrate the closest fly-by of Pluto by the New Horizons probe at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory July 14, 2015 in Laurel, Maryland. The unmanned NASA spacecraft whizzed by Pluto on July 14, making its closest approach in the climax of a decade-long journey to explore the dwarf planet for the first time, the US space agency said. Moving faster than any spacecraft ever built -- at a speed of about 30,800 miles per hour (49,570 kph) -- the flyby happened at 7:49 am (1149 GMT), with the probe running on auto-pilot. It was to pass by Pluto at a distance of 7,767 miles.

On this day in history 16 years ago, NASA launched one of its longest missions yet when New Horizons set out for Pluto on January 19, 2006. The unmanned spacecraft sailed past the dwarf planet at the end of our solar system on July 14, 2015.

The Houston-based Lunar and Planetary Institute used images and data from the mission to create new visualizations of Pluto, according to

The mission ventured deeper into space than any previous mission, capturing images of Pluto, its moons, and the Kuiper Belt, a region on the outskirts of the solar system containing icy bodies that scientists believe are remnants from the creation of our solar system’s planets. The Kuiper Belt is about one billion miles past Neptune’s orbit, according to NASA.

Astronomer David Jewitt of UCLA writes:

The Kuiper Belt holds significance for the study of the planetary system on at least two levels. First, it is likely that the Kuiper Belt objects are extremely primitive remnants from the early accretional phases of the solar system. The inner, dense parts of the pre-planetary disk condensed into the major planets, probably within a few millions to tens of millions of years. The outer parts were less dense, and accretion progressed slowly. Evidently, a great many small objects were formed. Second, it is widely believed that the Kuiper Belt is the source of the short-period comets. It acts as a reservoir for these bodies in the same way that the Oort Cloud acts as a reservoir for the long-period comets.

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Here’s what you need to know:

The New Horizons Spacecraft Was the Fastest at the Time & Launched on its Third Attempt January 19, 2022

The New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on an Atlas V rocket at 2 p.m. January 19, 2006, according to NASA. The flight was delayed twice because of high winds.

NASA announced the launch at the time in a statement, which said:

“NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a fast-moving Atlas V rocket, as it headed for a distant rendezvous with the mysterious planet Pluto almost a decade from now.”

The Houston Space Center celebrated the 15-year anniversary of the launch last year on Facebook.

“This first mission to the Pluto System and the Kuiper Belt made incredible discoveries about the origins and outskirts of our solar system,” the post said.

The small probe was loaded with imaging software and scientific equipment, including imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a multi-color camera, a long-range telescopic camera, two particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector and a radio science experiment, the Houston Space Center wrote.

“The compact, 1,050-pound piano-sized probe got a boost from a kick-stage solid propellant motor for its journey to Pluto. New Horizons was at the time the fastest spacecraft ever launched, reaching lunar orbit distance in just nine hours and passing Jupiter 13 months later,” the Space Center wrote.

New Horizons Discovered Four Moons of Pluto That Were Previously Unknown to Humans

New Horizons reached Jupiter about one year after its launch, and shortened its travel time to Pluto by using the massive planet’s gravity to “slingshot” it in Pluto’s direction, according to the Houston Space Center.

“That flyby saved years off the time for the trip to Pluto. It also provided opportunities to test the spacecraft’s instruments and flyby capabilities on the Jupiter system,” the Space Center wrote.

New Horizons conducted a fly-by study of Pluto and its moons that lasted six months, with the closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

You can see photos and videos New Horizons collected here.

Exploration of Pluto and beyond was considered a top priority, according to NASA, which calls the Kuiper Belt “a relic of solar system formation.” In addition to studies of the Kuiper Belt, images allowed scientists to identify four previously undiscovered moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. Pluto has five moons and the largest, Charon, is so large that Pluto and the moon orbit each other as though they form a double planet, according to NASA.

“A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system,” NASA writes. “New Horizons is exploring – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.”

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