You learn something new everyday. I vaguely remembering hearing about a planned NASA mission to Pluto, the furthest planet from the sun, a few years ago. I thought it was on the ‘that would sure be nice’ wish list and not actually being developed.
Well, call me stupid. Not only is the New Horizons mission to Pluto planned, that damn thing is built and waiting a launch window in January 2006. That’s 10 months away.
Remember how long it took Cassini to reach Saturn? That probe was launched in a cloud of protest back in October 1997 and it finally reached Saturn last summer. That was a voyage of almost seven years to reach Saturn. Pluto is far, far beyond Saturn – over four times farther away.
Thanks to the massive Atlas booster and an extra third stage rocket, New Horizons will be be the fastest spacecraft yet launched from Earth. The craft will zip along at 96,000 miles per hour. At that speed a spacecraft could fly from the Earth to the Moon in 4 hours. But Pluto is so distant it will take over nine years for New Horizons to reach the icy world. The probe will reach Pluto in July 2015 and hopefully continue on into the Kuiper Belt, the mysterious frozen realm of comets. NASA hopes to propel New Horizons beyond Pluto and past a couple of these distant snowballs at the edge of the solar system.