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NASA Launches Spacecraft to Explore Pluto

New Horizons is the inaugural mission in NASA’s far-reaching New Frontiers program, which aims to explore medium size planets and other large objects in the solar system.

Over the course of its flight the piano-sized craft will fly around Jupiter, using the planet’s powerful gravity to accelerate it towards Pluto the solar system’s smallest and most distant planet — although there is some dispute over whether Pluto is indeed a planet. New Horizons should complete the 3-billion mile trip by 2015, at which point it will use its cache of seven scientific instruments to examine Pluto.

“God has laid out the solar system in a way that requires a certain amount of patience on the part of those who choose to explore it,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin said.

Among the seven instruments at New Horizons’ disposal are tools to measure the contents of Pluto’s atmosphere, and provide high resolution photographs of Pluto’s surface geography.

Pluto is the last planet in our solar system to be visited by an unmanned probe. All current data about Pluto was gathered from Earth-based and orbital telescopes, and scientists hope that the variety of instruments mounted on the spacecraft will vastly increase understanding their understanding of the Earth’s distant neighbor.

The launch scheduled for Tuesday was postponed due to unseasonably high winds along Florida’s coast. The 40 percent chance of thunderstorms, and sustained high winds were beyond NASA’s guidelines for proper ignition and control of an ascending rocket.

On Wednesday high winds again stopped the launch, this time by causing a blackout at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. The APL, which serves as the mission control for the launch, was without primary power much of the day.

Atlas V rockets have been used six times since 2002 when the first Atlas V launched a commercial communications satellite into orbit. In August of last year, NASA employed an Atlas V rocket to launch the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which is currently scheduled to arrive at the red planet in March of 2006.

After completing its flyby of Pluto, NASA engineers hope to maneuver New Horizons into the mysterious Kuiper Belt, a vast ring of objects in the furthest outskirts of the solar system. Since 1992, scientists have discovered evidence of some 800 objects in the Kuiper Belt, though very little is known about them. NASA doesn’t know how long New Horizons will continue to function in the Kuiper Belt and officials say that they will make decisions about New Horizons’ future when the time comes; some time between 2016 and 2020.

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