Gravity Assist Will Help Pluto-Bound Craft

Gravity assist? The New Horizons spacecraft, the first probe ever sent to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, launched a year ago atop a Lockheed Martin-build Atlas 5 rocket. With an after-burn speed of 36,250 miles per hour, it's NASA's fastest probe ever. How much assistance could it need?

It needs help, because even at that rate, the New Horizons craft would take twelve years to get to Pluto. The "slingshot" effect of Jupiter's gravity will shave about three years off that schedule.

(Gravity assist from Jupiter helps New Horizons craft )

At it's closest approach, the New Horizons spacecraft will come within 1.7 million miles of the gas giant. At present, the probe is about 41 million miles from Jupiter and is now closing in at a speed of about 44,000 miles per hour.

The spacecraft will be seized by Jupiter's gravitational field and hauled along with the gas giant in its orbit. By the time New Horizons breaks free, it should achieve a velocity of about 52,000 miles per hour.

Who first thought of the idea of using a gravity assist to speed space craft through the solar system? The first scientists to work on it were Derek Lawden in 1954 and Michael Minovitch in 1961 at JPL. As far as I know, the first person to explicitly suggest that a gravity assist would work for spacecraft was science fiction writer Ray Cummings in his 1931 novel Brigands of the Moon.

We were at this time no more than some sixty-five thousand miles from the moon's surface. The Planetara presently would swing upon her direct course for Mars. There was nothing that would cause passenger comment in this close passing of the moon; normally we used the satellite's attraction to give us additional starting speed.
(Read more about Ray Cummings' gravity assist)

Read more about Pluto-Bound Spacecraft to Nab Speed Boost in Jupiter Flyby; find out more about gravity assisted space missions. (Technorati Profile)

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