To Pluto: Are we there yet?

The Obama administration is considering the future of the U.S. space program, a difficult concept for many politicians to grasp because there’s little chance of an immediate payoff.

Take the New Horizons Pluto probe, which was launched on January 19, 2006.

That was nine months before then Sen. Barack Obama announced his intentions to run for president. It will reach its destination — Pluto — on January 19, 2006 July 14, 2015. If he’s re-elected, it would be the beginning of his last two years in office.

Today — December 29, 2009 — the probe reached the point at which it’s now closer to Pluto than Earth.

But it’s not “halfway there” yet, notes:

New Horizons is halfway in distance to Pluto, but the mission timeline halfway point isn’t until October 16, 2010 (if I’ve done the math correctly). The probe was launched at high speed, slowed down due to the Earth’s and Sun’s gravity, picked up a kick from Jupiter in early 2007, and has been slowing ever since. Since it was moving faster before, it reached the distance halfway point before the schedule halfway point.

New Horizons is now 16.37 AU – 2.449 billion km, or 1.522 billion miles — from home. But maybe now, home is no longer Earth. Once it crossed that line today, home became deep space. Even Pluto and its moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra are only milestones for it. It won’t be stopping when it gets there; New Horizons will sail on by, continuing into deep space. It’ll become one of several other spacecraft we’ve sent out of the solar system itself, set to wander interstellar space forever.

When the probe was launched, of course, Pluto was still considered a planet.

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