New Horizons on Track for Jupiter
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft launches into space on a mission to the planet Pluto and beyond on Jan. 19, 2006.
Credit: NASA.

A spacecraft headed for the Solar System's edge has aimed itself at the planet Jupiter in a long-distance slingshot on toward Pluto.

NASA's New Horizons probe fired its thrusters in two brief maneuvers - one on Jan. 30 and an earlier event on Jan. 28 - for a total speed change of about 40 miles per hour (or about 18 meters per second). Launched on Jan. 19, New Horizons carries seven primary instruments on a mission to study Pluto, its moons and the icy Kuiper Belt objects beyond the ninth planet.

A third, final trajectory maneuver is set for Feb. 18, but New Horizons launch placed it so close to its flight path that the probe has managed save much more hydrazine propellant for later use than expected, APL spokesperson Mike Buckley told SPACE.com. The probe will swing past Jupiter on Feb. 28, 2007 and use the planet's gravity as a boost toward Pluto, he added.

"We're on our way to an exciting Jupiter encounter and a date with destiny at Pluto," said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Stern will celebrate the centennial anniversary of the birth of astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, on Feb. 4 with a presentation at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

Tombaugh discovered Pluto on Feb. 18, 1930 at Flagstaff, Arizona's Lowell Observatory. The University of Kansas' Clyde Tombaugh Observatory is named after the astronomer, who died in 1997. [Click here for more information on the centennial Tombaugh discussion.]