To Pluto. . . and beyond

New Horizons mission launches

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA's $700 million New Horizons mission to Pluto lifted off at noon Boulder time Thursday, beginning the spacecraft`s flight of more than nine years and 3 billion miles to the solar system`s last unexplored frontier.

Mark your calendars: New Horizons will be arriving at Pluto on July 14, 2015.

For Alan Stern, the Southwest Research Institute scientist from Boulder leading the mission, Thursday's launch represents the greatest milestone of a 17-year quest to send a spacecraft to Pluto.

NASA's New Horizon spacecraft launches on January 19, 2006

The Atlas V rocket carrying the New Horizons spacecraft takes off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Thursday, following days of delays.

"The United States has a spacecraft on its way to Pluto and then the Kuiper Belt and the stars," Stern said in a post-launch news conference. "This is an historic day, and I have to say that only the United States could do this. I'm very proud of that."

Launch was delayed for just under an hour Thursday because of scattered clouds, and the repeated countdown holds grew reminiscent of the scrubbed launch Tuesday. A second delay came Wednesday because of a power failure at mission control in Maryland.

But a patchy canopy gave way Thursday to a swath of blue, and the Littleton-built Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket tore through the gap and into space more quickly than any projectile in history.

It was the first Atlas V to fly with five Aerojet solid rocket boosters. At liftoff, they and the Atlas V engine combined for 2.5 million pounds of thrust, enough to power a dozen Boeing 747s at takeoff. By the time the third rocket stage was finished 44 minutes later, the 1,054-pound New Horizons was indeed the fastest thing ever launched.

"I've got one thing to say: 36,256 miles an hour. That`s how fast we`re going," said Omar Baez, NASA`s launch director.

By the time morning newspapers land on driveways today, New Horizons will be nearly three times farther away than the moon.

Watching the launch at the Kennedy Space Center was Patricia Tombaugh, 93, widow of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. He died in 1997, and some of his ashes are on the spacecraft.

"I was so emotional," Patricia Tombaugh said.

University of Colorado Student Dust Counter team member Chelsey Bryant watched the launch before hustling to catch her flight home.

"It was exhilarating," Bryant said. "I even had tears in my eyes."

The dust counter will tally dust hits across 3 billion miles of deep space to help scientists understand the distribution of space dust in our solar system and possibly others. It will be the first instrument turned on, in about 20 days. The other six will be commissioned in the next several months.

Among them are Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.'s Ralph instrument, which Stern has called the payload`s central element. It will be used to map the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon and to determine the composition of surface ice.

Stern leaves for mission control at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory on Saturday, where he will spend 10 days with mission leaders to prepare for New Horizons` first course correction. Given the apparent accuracy of the Lockheed launch, it should be minor, mission officials said.

New Horizons will be doing science well before arriving at Pluto and the Kuiper Belt to which the tiny planet belongs. The Kuiper Belt is a swarm of frozen remnants of the solar system orbiting between 3 billion and 5 billion miles from the sun and containing perhaps 100,000 bodies more than 60 miles in diameter.

First, Stern said, New Horizons will observe an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. Then, in February 2007, the spacecraft will come within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter and accelerate 9,000 mph on the wings of a gravity assist. New Horizons will examine Jupiter`s moons, atmosphere and massive magnetic tail along the way.

After hurtling beyond Pluto, New Horizons could visit one or two Kuiper Belt objects in an extended mission lasting perhaps five years. That, project leaders are careful to say, depends on NASA paying for it. New Horizons has spent $500 million already, and will go through its budget in the next decade, said Kurt Lindstrom, NASA`s New Horizons program executive.

At a news conference earlier in the week, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the additional money probably will be there, though he won't be administrator in 2015.

"I will depart from my normal practice and speculate that we won't turn off a properly operating spacecraft that is penetrating the Kuiper Belt," he said.