New Horizons mission planners have developed a new strategy that could trim nearly a year off their original schedule to send a spacecraft to the solar
system’s outermost planet.

Now in preliminary development for NASA, New Horizons would be the first
mission to explore Pluto and its moon, Charon, as well as the ancient Kuiper
Belt of rocky, icy objects beyond the planets. If approved and funded later
this year, New Horizons would launch in January 2006, swing around Jupiter
for scientific studies and a gravity boost in 2007, and reach Pluto as early
as 2015.

“As we continued to study the mission, and optimized our launch window, we
realized that we could get the spacecraft to Pluto sooner,” says New
Horizons Mission Director Robert W. Farquhar, of The Johns Hopkins
University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., which manages the
mission and will build and operate the spacecraft. “In our best estimates we
can cover the 3 billion miles from Earth to Pluto faster than we once
thought, while keeping all the mission’s goals intact.”

New Horizons project leaders say a faster trip benefits the mission in many

“This a great opportunity to improve our scientific return while reducing
mission risks and costs,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator S. Alan
Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “We’ll get a
better look at Pluto itself, since more of the surface will be sunlit and
the atmosphere will be another year away from freezing onto the planet’s
surface. We’ll have more fuel for the journey into the Kuiper Belt after
exploring Pluto-Charon, and the shorter cruise time reduces some of the
costs associated with flight operations.”

New Horizons will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto
and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and study
Pluto’s complex atmosphere in detail. The spacecraft will then visit up to
three Kuiper Belt objects beyond Pluto.

In addition to Southwest Research Institute and the Applied Physics Lab, the
New Horizons team includes Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; Ball
Aerospace Corp., Boulder; the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt,
Md.; and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The science team
also taps expertise from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Ariz., NASA Ames
Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Cambridge, Mass.; Washington University in St. Louis; George
Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; University of Colorado, Boulder; and The
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

For more information, visit the New Horizons Web site at