NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is one of the fastest spacecraft ever built – traveling through space at nearly one million miles per day – and for good reason. It has a long distance to travel, all the way to Pluto in the outer solar system. Pluto was considered a planet when NASA launched New Horizons in 2006. Astronomers are still keen to know more about this distant dwarf planet, which is known to be central to its own system of at least 5 moons. NASA released a new video about this mission this week. According to the mission’s principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute:
The encounter begins next January. We’re less than a year away.
Closest approach with Pluto will be July 2015. New Horizons will only 6,000 miles (10,000 km) from Pluto. But Stern says 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 pinpoint Pluto’s location. Its location is uncertain by a few thousand kilometers. Stern said:
We’ll use the images to refine Pluto’s distance from the spacecraft, and then fire the engines to make any necessary corrections.
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.
By late April 2015, New Horizons will be taking pictures of Pluto that surpass the best images from Hubble, Stern said. He said he’s looking forward to what he calls “one of the most exciting moments of the Space Age.”
We’re flying into the unknown, and there is no telling what we might find.
Bottom line: The New Horizons mission will begin a photographic survey of Pluto and its moons a year from now, 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.