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Duluth native had hand in Pluto mission

Nine and a half years ago Jim Sponnick had only one thing planned for 2015: to celebrate the New Horizons spacecraft finally reaching Pluto. Sponnick, a Duluth native, is the vice president of Atlas and Delta programs for the United Launch Alliance.

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Duluth native James V. Sponnick stands before a United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV heavy rocket at Cape Canaveral. Sponnick, a Duluth native, helped design the rocket that launched the New Horizons spacecraft. (2011 file photo / United Launch Alliance)
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Nine and a half years ago Jim Sponnick had only one thing planned for 2015: to celebrate the New Horizons spacecraft finally reaching Pluto.

Sponnick, a Duluth native, is the vice president of Atlas and Delta programs for the United Launch Alliance. He helped design the rocket that launched New Horizons into space at speeds so high it passed the moon in less than nine hours.

Yesterday, Sponnick's near-decade of waiting paid off. The craft reached Pluto and has been sending photos of it back to Earth.

"It's just thrilling beyond compare," he said.

Sponnick has participated in many missions since New Horizons was launched, but he said it was one of the most difficult projects he has ever worked on. His work actually began three years before the launch.

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The rocket Sponnick designed was different from others. While most rockets have two stages to help propel the payload into space, this one needed three, since it was going to the very edges of the solar system.

And because New Horizons was going out of reach of the sun, it needed a different kind of power source. Rather than being powered by solar panels, the probe contains a tiny nuclear power plant, which, Sponnick said, had to be approved by the highest levels of the U.S. government.

"It was one of the most memorable launches that I have been involved with," he said. "It was such a complicated mission to prepare for by our team, and clearly a historic mission because no spacecraft has ever been to Pluto before."

The team also faced a crisis just months before the launch. A hurricane came through the complex and damaged the rocket.

Sponnick kept tabs on the spacecraft during the past nine years, and was at Cape Canaveral when it reached Pluto, just like he was when it launched. Sponnick was not able to celebrate, though, because he was busy with another launch.

"One of the few things that would have kept me away is managing another launch," Sponnick said. "I personally haven't had a chance to (celebrate) yet, but we just completed today's launch successfully so it's a good day."

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGY
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