New Horizons probe flies past Jupiter

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft made a successful fly-by of the planet Jupiter on the 28th February 2007 in order to use the planet's massive gravitational pull to gain enough speed for its onward 3 billion mile (4.83 billion km) journey to Pluto.

New Horizon's primary mission is to undertake the first close-up, in-depth study of Pluto and its moon (Charon) in the summer of 2015. As part of a possible extended mission, the spacecraft would then examine one or more additional objects in the Kuiper Belt - a region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies (including Pluto) far beyond Neptune's orbit.

Radar image of Titan's surface
Trajectory of New Horizons craft and image of Jupiter taken during the fly-by © NASA

The image above (left) shows the path New Horizons has followed since it was launched just over a year ago in January 2006. The probe is now the fastest spacecraft ever launched, having gained nearly 9,000 miles per hour (14,000 kilometers per hour) from its recent slingshot around Jupiter, and is currently speeding into the outer Solar System at over 52,000 mph (83,600 km/h). Since launch, New Horizons has covered approximately 500 million miles (800 million kilometers) and has reached Jupiter quicker than any of the seven previous spacecraft to have made the journey.

During the fly-by, mission scientists took the opportunity of testing the spacecraft's on-board instruments and cameras by taking a few snapshots of Jupiter and its moons. The image above (right) shows complex cloud patterns in Jupiter's beautiful but ever-changing atmosphere, and Jupiter's Little Red Spot, which has formed over the past few years from several smaller storms.

If you want to learn more about the New Horizons mission, then please follow this link.