Pluto-bound spacecraft sends test photos


September 08, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Reporter

Calling it "the best news any Pluto fan could hope for," scientists working on NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto have been cheered this month by the first images from their spacecraft's high-resolution camera.

All seven instruments on the mission - the one intended to produce the first close look at the "dwarf planet" in 2015 - have proven they are working as expected.

The fastest spacecraft ever built, New Horizons is 322 million miles from the sun, moving through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter at 14.45 miles per second. Pluto is still 2.63 billion miles farther out.

The New Horizons spacecraft was designed and built at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel. APL also hosts the control center for the $700 million mission, which was launched in January. The craft passed Mars' orbit in April, but its camera was not scheduled for testing until last week.

The "first light" images didn't look like much - white stars against the inky blackness of space. But they were clear evidence that the camera worked as commanded. It opened its hinged cover to the bitter cold of space and snapped sharp photos of a star cluster in our Milky Way galaxy called Messier 7, first described by astronomers in A.D. 130. To see the view, visit pluto.

Called LORRI, for Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, the camera will be tested again Feb. 28 when New Horizons scientists aim it at Jupiter as it flies by just 1.4 million miles from the giant planet. They will focus on Jupiter's weather, faint rings and moons.

Frank D. Roylance

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