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NASA's New Horizons 3-billion-mile-plus mission to the outer solar system finally got underway Thursday when the half-ton spacecraft executed a picture-perfect liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time atop an Atlas V booster. It is expected to rendezvous with the planet Pluto and its moons sometime in mid-2015, and perhaps even to visit the mysterious objects in the Kuiper Belt that extend well beyond Pluto's orbit.
Carrying the spacecraft, its Centaur second stage, and a unique third-stage Star-48B kick motor into space, the Atlas produced more than 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff and cleared the four surrounding 350-foot lightning towers in under five seconds.
The Atlas completed its burn about four minutes and 30 seconds into the mission and separated from the Centaur upper stage. The Centaur fired and lifted the spacecraft into a temporary elliptical parking orbit, then ignited a second time, burning nearly 10 minutes before separating from the Star-48B, which pushed New Horizons well past escape velocity. <br clear=all> ...