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Emily LakdawallaJanuary 19, 2006

New Horizons post-launch press conference

I am updating this as I take notes from the press conference...refresh your browser.

Andy Danztler, who's from NASA HQ, opens. He compliments the inter-agency teamwork on the project. "I don't want to take up all the time gushing--it was a beautiful launch and it's hard to contain myself. By the time you see this news report on the 11:00 news, the spacecraft will already be past the orbit of the moon. It's been a great day."

Omar Baez, I think the Flight Operations Manager, is next. "The spacecraft is where it needs to be, going at the right speed and in the right direction."

Alan Stern, Principal Investigator, is next. His voice is a little shaky. He thanks LockMart, APL, all the contractors and NASA centers, and Mike Griffin and NASA HQ. "This was a textbook operation for a nuclear launch from the get-go. Safety always was first. I have July 14, 2015 emblazoned on my calendar. We are now certain of that. It will be the 50th anniversary to the day of the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, the flyby that opened the reconnaissance of planets beyond Earth."

Glen Fountain, Project Manager, is next. At 2:50 we received the first signals from the New Horizons spacecraft. At that point we had 180 Watts out of the RTG. It will build up to 240 over the next few hours, and will be over 200 when we get to Pluto. All the systems are green, they're in good shape.

Now it's open for questions. I won't write down all the questions, just the ones that seem likely to produce interesting comments from the panel.

Stern: I think it's exciting that textbooks have to be rewritten over and over. I think that's one of the great things about being a scientist, seeing your view expand.

What are risks and dangers? Fountain: I was remarking through the countdown, that once it launches, we'll finally get it out there where it will be safe. It's safest on its way to Pluto. As we get beyond Pluto, the power margin will drop, and we'll have to get smarter about how we operate the spacecraft.

Any problems? Stern: We're not working any problems now. The onboard fault protection system did not return any faults whatsoever. So it's now our job to be good stewards of the spacecraft, and to learn to fly it in the environment it was built for.

Was the suspense killing you? Stern: It was suspenseful, no question. I can tell you I was getting some exercise right here (gestures to his heart). The launch team had to recycle and recycle, I may have lost count, I think we had to recycle five times today.

What's next on the agenda? Fountain: First we will start exercising the propulsion system. We will spin down the spacecraft. We'll exercise the other pieces of the guidance control system. In about two hours we'll get the precise information about what our trajectory is. It looks like we're on a very nominal trajectory. We'll then start planning a TCM that will take place in about 10 days. The second one will take place in about 20 days. We're going at something like 16 km per second. We have about 300 meters per second of delta vee to control the spacecraft. We'll then do an initial checkout of the instruments. Next summer, we'll go through an in-flight calibration. Then we'll start planning for the Jupiter encounter, which will start in the fall. The Jupiter encounter will take place in late February.

Jupiter? Stern: We have a long list of objectives for the Jupiter encounter. We have a science team meeting in about two weeks to look at that.

Stern: gives a shout-out to Clyde Tombaugh's widow and daughter. Some of Clyde Tombaugh's ashes are on their way to Pluto today.

That's it for the press conference. I think my favorite quote was the one from Stern: "I think it's exciting that textbooks have to be rewritten over and over. I think that's one of the great things about being a scientist, seeing your view expand."

Read more: New Horizons, mission status

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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