The eighth mission to the fifth planet has reached its crescendo - Jupiter, my friends, is in the rear view mirror!
Just yesterday we passed closest approach, sealing the deal on our gravity assist and setting us up for our mid-July 2015 encounter with the Pluto system.
When New Horizons passed closest to giant Jupiter, and through the riskiest region for radiation from the giant planet's magnetosphere, it was out of contact with controllers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland. So the tension in the control center was high as we awaited first contact after closest approach, which occurred just minutes before noon Eastern time yesterday - and just over 11 hours past the flyby point. But when contact was established, our baby was just fine, quietly executing its timeline and apparently no worse the wear for its radiation bath.
With that news came an impromptu press conference, a series of television and radio interviews, an evening lecture by mission scientist John Spencer to a crowd of hundreds, and then more interviews. It reminded me of the attention we got during the launch campaign - which is fitting in a way, since in a real sense, yesterday's flyby was the completion our January 2006 launch, with Jupiter serving as the fourth stage that "fired" 13 months after the three stages of our Atlas V. Now we're truly on the Pluto leg of our journey, having gained the speed boost and turn required for our date with scientific destiny, eight summers hence.
Onward now to the Kuiper Belt, the Third Zone of our planetary system, that ancient relic of planetary formation, and scientific wonderland at the very frontier of humankind's home solar system!
The graphics above illustrate the boost in speed, over time, that New Horizons gets from flying past Jupiter. (Click on the images to view larger versions.)
I'll be back in a few days with more news about the scientific observations New Horizons is making - and there are still four more jam-packed days of Jupiter system observations before we settle down for the long Jovian exploration traverse.
But that's it for now. I'll be back with more news and view soon. Keep exploring, as we do!
- Alan Stern
During the Jupiter encounter, you'll also be able to read Alan Stern's blog on the Astronomy magazine Web site; check out http://www.astronomy.com for details.