New Horizons Launched for Pluto 10 Years Ago This Week

New Horizons Flying by Pluto Image
An artist's view of NASA's New Horizons probe passing through the Pluto-Charon system. This week (Jan. 19) marks 10 years since the probe was launched from Earth. (Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, Pluto was a blurry picture in even state-of-the-art telescopes. Today, we have high-definition photography flowing in from New Horizons' flyby in July 2015.

Tuesday (Jan. 19) marked the 10th anniversary of the launch of New Horizons from Florida. It took 9.5 years for the probe to reach Pluto, traveling 3 billion miles to its destination. And it's still operational today at the edge of our solar system.

"With that flyby, New Horizons completed a long-held goal of the scientific community and also five-decade-long quest by NASA to explore all the planets known at the start of the space age," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, said in a statement. [Destination Pluto: NASA's New Horizons Mission in Pictures]

When it launched, New Horizons made the fastest departure ever from Earth, at 36,000 mph. This was possible using a standard Lockheed Martin Atlas V with an unusually powerful third stage, supplied by Boeing.

The spacecraft got even faster when it made a pass by Jupiter in 2006, gaining another 9,000 mph. The Jupiter flyby also served as a practice run for the team to take pictures and do measurements with the spacecraft's instruments. Despite getting only a very quick look at Jupiter, New Horizons did find firsts: the first close-up look at lightning at Jupiter's poles, and the first sequence of pictures showing an eruption on the volcanic moon Io. 

Pluto and its moon Charon began getting bigger in New Horizons' pictures in January 2015. At first the worlds were used for navigational purposes, but as New Horizons drew closer it was possible to see details of the terrain.

The probe is now speeding farther into the Kuiper Belt, and has been targeted to fly by another object in that belt in 2018, if sufficient funding is available.

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace