NASA's Pluto Probe Set for Flight
NASA’s New Horizons probe sits atop its Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
A NASA probe bound for the planet Pluto and the distant icy realm of the Kuiper Belt is spending its final days on Earth as it nears its Jan. 17 launch date.
"We're in great shape," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told SPACE.com this week. "We have a very clean vehicle."
New Horizons cleared a Flight Readiness Review Thursday as the days tick down toward liftoff of the first-ever flyby mission to Pluto, mission officials said, adding that a series of mission news and science briefings will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 1:00 p.m. EST (1800 GMT).
Rollout of the spacecraft atop its Lockheed Martin-built Atlas 5 rocket is set for Monday morning at its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch pad in Florida. Booster fueling to follow shortly after, NASA officials added.
The spaceflight's launch window opens at 1:24 p.m. EST (1824 GMT) on Jan. 17 and runs through Feb. 14, though the spacecraft must lift off by the end of January to take advantage of a gravity boost from Jupiter that could shave three years off its spacecraft. If all goes well, the probe should swing past Pluto and its moons in 2015, researchers said.
"Everything is very positive and everybody is getting very excited," said David Kusnierkiewicz, New Horizons mission systems engineer with the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, which built the spacecraft for NASA. "It's a good feeling...all the official approvals are in."
NASA officials confirmed this week that the White House's Office of Science, Technology and Policy (OSTP) gave its final approval on New Horizon's radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), which converts heat from decaying plutonium into power for the Pluto spacecraft.
The RTG is a leftover spare from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which is currently studying Saturn and its many moons, Stern has told SPACE.com.
Stern said the New Horizons probe's Jan. 17 launch target also happens to coincide with the anniversary of the death of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, who first observed the distant world in 1930 and died in 1997.
"It's a complete coincidence, but interesting," Stern said.
The launch is also bounded between the 100th anniversaries of Tombaugh's birth (Feb. 18), as well as that of Gerard Kuiper (Dec. 7) - after whom the Kuiper Belt and its objects are named. Family members of both Kuiper and Tombaugh are expected to be on hand for the launch.
Both Stern and Kusnierkiewicz don't plan to relax once New Horizons launches on its way, and will head immediately to the spacecraft's mission control center at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
"This thing has been a lot of hard work and it's gratifying to get to this point," said Kusnierkiewicz, who has spent the last five years watching over the New Horizons spacecraft. "It's kind of exciting that first all this hardware starts to show up and then one day, you turn around and it's at the launch site."
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