Pluto probe flies past Jupiter

As it skims the giant planet, New Horizons will pick up a treasure trove of data.

    Jupiter, seen in this Hubble Space Telescope photo,
    has given New Horizons a hefty power boost [AP]

    The objective was to boldly go where some have been before but certainly not at this speed, Anand Naidoo, Al Jazeera's correspondent, says, reporting from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, USA.
    Fastest space vehicle
    New Horizons is already the fastest space vehicle to leave Earth. But to make its rendezvous with Pluto, it needs to go even faster.
    That's where Jupiter comes in: thanks to the laws of gravity and physics, the solar system's largest planet would give New Horizons a hefty power boost - what scientists call a "gravity assist", Naidoo says.
    Andrew Cheng of the Applied Physics Laboratory explains: "The space swings by, Jupiter's gravity pulls it in and deflects the trajectory but since Jupiter is swinging by the sun, the spacecraft is pulled forward."
    That power thrust will push New Horizons up to about 83,000km per hour (kph) - to put it in earthly terms - fast enough to reach New York from Tokyo in about eight minutes.
    It will also cut four years off the spacecraft's arrival time.
    While skimming Jupiter, New Horizons will pick up a treasure trove of data. It will take close-up photos and gather information on the planet's stormy atmosphere and its moons.
    New Horizons - about the size of a small grand piano - will finally reach its destination - Pluto - in July 2015.
    Close look
    In exchange for the power boost, the New Horizons spacecraft is taking a long-awaited look at Jupiter, which was the focus of the now-defunct, eight-year Galileo mission.
    Of particular interest is Europa, a large Jovian moon that shows strong evidence of a subterranean, salty ocean.

    New Horizons was launched into space from
    Florida's Cape Canaveral in January 2006

    Antenna problems on Galileo prevented scientists from getting many high-resolution images of Europa, which sports a smooth, flat, icy surface.
    Scientists hope infrared sensors aboard New Horizons will reveal upwellings on the surface from the hidden sea below.
    The prospect of a liquid ocean increases the chances that life may exist on Europa.
    Similar habitats on Earth, such as under the Antarctic and Arctic ice sheets, have been found to be teeming with life, according to Jere Lipps, a marine biologist at the University of California at Berkeley.
    In addition to the Europa studies and observations of three sister moons, including Io, which has active volcanoes, New Horizons is scheduled to make a long trek down the length of Jupiter's magnetic tail, which extends for tens of millions of km beyond the planet.
    The tail stems from Jupiter's vast and dynamic magnetic field, which is buffeted and shaped by the high-speed river of charged particles constantly flowing from the sun.
    Little Red Spot
    Other highlights of New Horizon's Jupiter tour include a first-time close-
    up look at a storm known as the Little Red Spot, which formed after Galileo's demise in 1995.
    After relaying to ground control stations its data from Jupiter, New Horizons will be put into hibernation for the remaining eight years it will take to reach Pluto.
    The spacecraft, which is powered by the slow decay of radioactive plutonium pellets, was launched in January 2006.
    The spacecraft is moving far too fast to stop and drop into orbit once it reaches Pluto in 2015.
    Rather, it will study the small planet-like world and its main moon Charon on the fly before heading out to study other icy bodies in the Kuiper Belt region.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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