NASA: New Horizons spacecraft passes Jupiter

Flyby of giant planet expected to yield exceptional photos of Jovian moon; craft is healthy and aimed for Pluto. Photos: Pluto probe returns photos of Jupiter

New Horizons, NASA's spacecraft en route to Pluto, has successfully completed its flyby of Jupiter and picked up the needed speed to continue on its course, the space agency reported.

Scientists received confirmation of the flyby's success at about noon Wednesday from the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., NASA has reported.

"It's a fantastic feeling. I mean, we've planned this for years and it's really nice to see it come to fruition," said Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division at the Southwest Research Institute.

The spacecraft passed through the riskiest region, in terms of its exposure to radiation from the giant planet's magnetosphere, and was out of contact with controllers before reaching its closest point of approach, according to NASA. NASA then re-established contact with New Horizons to confirm its health and status at 11:55 a.m., about 11 hours after the closest flyby point. As planned, New Horizons came within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter, gained a 9,000mph gravity boost from Jupiter and established aim for Pluto, which it is expected to reach by July 2015.

"There are no issues, I promise," said Stern in explaining why NASA has not revealed more photos. New Horizons is getting "really good stuff" and everything is going as planned, he said, adding that the majority of the 700 planned observations of Jupiter were taken this week and stored aboard New Horizons.

"Of the data New Horizons has taken and will take, less than one-tenth of 1 percent is on the ground," Stern said.

NASA will receive the remaining data starting March 7 and will continue to receive data through early May. The team plans to hold a press conference in late April, at which time it will give a more thorough briefing on what the New Horizons has uncovered.

The spacecraft is not in communication with Earth every minute. The team has a number of shifts a couple times a week when data stored on the spacecraft is transferred to Earth. So while many people are curious to know what the scientists are learning, Stern said, it's way too early to make assumptions.

"We have the very best image ever made of Io, the very best image ever made of the plume from the Tvashtar volcano on Io, and the very best image ever made of Jupiter's not-so-little (Little) Red Spot. But we have not done any serious analyses of that," Stern said.

"Everyone is asking. It's like asking, 'How's the trip from Denver to L.A. going?' when I am still driving in my own neighborhood," he said.

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