Getting New Horizons and Pluto at the same spot at the same time 5b km away

The rendezvous of deep space probe New Horizons and Pluto is an achievement few people can grasp. It is like shooting a golf ball in mid air with a rifle from a hundred miles away — only harder! Five billion kilometres over nine and a half years to hit a planetoid a lot smaller than the earth in an irregular orbit at the far edge of the solar system. That’s hard!

New Horizon’s mission planners would have had to map out a course to meet Pluto at its expected location at a point in time that coincides with the space probe’s expected arrival at the same spot. In essence, if X is Pluto’s location at point in time T, mapping out the Pluto mission will have involved solving for variables X and T using equations that model New Horizon’s flight path through the solar system and Pluto’s orbit simultaneously.


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You wouldn’t know Pluto’s X until you know a T that is equal to the navigation time of the spacecraft that puts it at the same location X that is a function of Pluto’s T which must be equal to the spacecraft’s T. Or vice versa. Something to that effect.

For that matter, all space missions involve that sort of problem. Unlike spacecraft in Star Wars which burn thrusters throughout their journey and make powered hard course changes, much of the flight of real spacecraft is unpowered and relies on a major call on general trajectory at launch (or during each major “burn” to change course) then minor corrections using relatively small burns (more like thruster bursts) over its course. Major changes in course and velocity involve steering the ship with minor burns towards major gravity fields and using the influence of those fields to effect the change. So the biggest proportion of a real spacecraft’s flight is on “forward momentum” (using Star Trek navigation jargon).

Thanks to all the unsung heroes who did the humongous maths needed to get Pluto’s and New Horizons’s X’s and T’s aligned, humanity is being treated to a brilliant close encounter with our solar system’s most mysterious planet today.

[Image courtesy]

8 Replies to “Getting New Horizons and Pluto at the same spot at the same time 5b km away”

  1. It is a “Close Encounter” with the best kind. We have powerful computers, that can determine the variables of a traveling Deep Space Probe equipment.

    Mankind has advanced so far in Space Technology. Pluto is in our Solar System.

    We still cannot build a space equipment, that goes faster than the speed of light. If we could someday; then, that will be the day.

    Space is still an unknown place. We know only a few about it…much more of the other planets. Many galaxies are still there. We can go someday, where no one has gone before…

  2. Buried deep within you, beneath all the years of pain and anger, there is something that has never been nurtured: the potential to make yourself a better man. And that is what it is to be human. To make yourself more than you are. Oh, yes — I know you. There was a time you looked at the stars and dreamed of what might be.

  3. We choose to go to the other planets of our solar system and beyond, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

    1. Craig Nelson introduces his book Rocketmen, with the story of a 1969 United States Senate briefing (shortly after Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon) where Fermilab physicist Robert Wilson is asked how a $250 million atom smasher he proposes be built will contribute to the security of the United States. Wilson responded by saying that it will contribute nothing, but that the American people’s capacity to undertake endeavours like those is what makes the United States of America worth defending.

  4. 9 years and 3 billion miles to Pluto. No accidents, no machine failure. New Horizons arriving on time and functioning as expected and now revealing to the world what the “dwarf planet” is made of. Unbelievable but real. I’m still overwhelmed with NASA’s capacity to explore and take us all to the trip on what’s outside the universe. They started that one giant leap in 1969 and they only further their exploration since then. I’m at a loss for words, really. I mean, who knows what New Horizons have to face when it goes out there before reaching its destination. And who knows if this superb spacecraft is suited for the mission. But NASA, their scientists knows and they made it!

  5. Filipinos can never achieve this if they continue to avoid highly technical subjects and college courses like the plague. Also, better funding from the government for research and experiments can go a long way and creates real value, not the ephemeral economic value associated with service work and labor.

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