As Pluto reaches opposition on July 4, 2014, astronomers with telescopes on Earth will be trying to glimpse it. In the meantime, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – one of the fastest spacecraft ever built – is traveling through space at nearly one million miles per day toward Pluto. It has had a long distance to travel since its launch in 2006. Closest approach with Pluto will be July 2015. Astronomers are keen to know more about this distant dwarf planet, which is known to be central to its own system of at least 5 moons.
New Horizons will pass only 6,000 miles (10,000 km) from Pluto. But NASA said earlier this year that the spacecraft will begin its work in January 2015. That’s when mission controllers will begin photographing Pluto and its largest moon Charon as distant pinpricks in front of the star background, in order to verify Pluto’s location, which is uncertain by a few thousand kilometers. Spacecraft controllers will use the images to refine Pluto’s distance from New Horizons, and then fire the engines to make any necessary corrections.
By late April 2015, New Horizons will be taking pictures of Pluto that surpass the best images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. It’s now known to be the largest object in the Kuiper belt, and the 10th-most-massive body observed directly orbiting our sun. In 1978, astronomer James Christy discovered Pluto’s largest and innermost. In May 2005, the Hubble Space Telescope Pluto Companion Search Team imaged two more moons, now called Nix and Hydra. When NASA launched New Horizons in 2006, Pluto was known to be central to a system of three moons.
In 2011 and 2012, astronomers found two more small moons, since named Kerberos and Styx. Theoretical simulations suggest there may be as many as 10 moons and one or more ring systems in the Pluto system.
Bottom line: The New Horizons mission will begin a photographic survey of Pluto and its moons in January 2015. New Horizons will be taking pictures of Pluto that surpass Hubble Space Telescope images by April 2015. Closest approach of New Horizons to Pluto will be July 2015.