New Horizons Spacecraft May Encounter Dangerous Debris as it Gets Closer to Pluto in 2015

Posted on October 21, 2012

New Horizons Spacecraft Near Pluto Artists Concept


NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is nearly seven years into its 9.5-year journey across the solar system to explore Pluto and its moons. In January 2015, New Horizons will begin encounter operations, which will culminate in a close approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. The artist's concept image above shows NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its 2015 encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon.

The New Horizons science team has announced in a press release that there is increasing concern that the spacecraft may encounter dangerous debris near Pluto. The scientists warn that even a pebble could destroy the New Horizons spacecraft because of its speed of over 30,000 miles per hour.

Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and an associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute, says, "We've found more and more moons orbiting near Pluto - the count is now up to five. And we've come to appreciate that those moons, as well as others not yet discovered, act as debris generators populating the Pluto system with shards from collisions between those moons and small Kuiper Belt objects."

Stern also says, "We're worried that Pluto and its system of moons, the object of our scientific affection, may actually be a bit of a black widow."

New Horizons Project Scientist Dr. Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, added, "Because our spacecraft is traveling so fast - more than 30,000 miles per hour - a collision with a single pebble, or even a millimeter-sized grain, could cripple or destroy New Horizons, so we need to steer clear of any debris zones around Pluto."

The scientists are using sophisticated computer simulations, ground based telescopes, the Hubble and other satellites to aide in the search for dangerous debris orbiting Pluto. The team is plotting alternative courses - that would not take the spacecraft as close to Pluto - if it turns out that the current flyby mission plan is too hazardous.

Stern says, "We may not know whether to fire our engines on New Horizons and bail out to safer distances until just 10 days before reaching Pluto, so this may be a bit of a cliff-hanger. Stay tuned."

You can keep up the New Horizons mission here.

Photo: JHUAPL/SwRI