- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was launched yesterday by a 20-story-high rocket on its way to the icy, distant destination of planet Pluto.

The 1,054-pound spacecraft is traveling at 36,256 miles an hour, making it the fastest man-made object ever. The high speed is necessary because of the vast distance to Pluto — literally a 3.6 billion mile trek that is expected to take nine years.

“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.

Along the way, New Horizons will get an additional boost, the equivalent of adding an additional stage to the rocket. In early 2007, it will speed by Jupiter using the giant planet’s gravity to add additional speed.

“The United States has a spacecraft on its way to Pluto, then the Kuiper Belt, and then the stars. I have July 14, 2015, emblazoned on my calendar, that’s our arrival date on Pluto,” said NASA scientist Alan Stern.

“It’s an interesting happenstance that it will be the 50th anniversary of the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, the [mission] which really opened the reconnaissance of the planets beyond the Earth.”

The spacecraft, powered by 24 pounds of plutonium, will not land on Pluto but will photograph it, analyze its atmosphere and send data back across the solar system to Earth.

The New Horizons project costs taxpayers roughly $650 million.

Pluto is the only planet in the solar system that has not been visited by a spacecraft. Venus and Mars were explored during the 1960s; Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s, and Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.

It also is the only planet discovered by a U.S. citizen, Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, though some astronomers dispute its right to be called a planet. It is a celestial oddball — an icy dwarf unlike the rocky planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and the gaseous planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

New Horizons contained some of the late Mr. Tombaugh’s ashes.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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