At 9:49:57 pm tonight, the New Horizons space probe will reach its closest proximity to Pluto.
Meaning, (after nine years, five months and 25 days) we are just over 11 hours from seeing an unprecedented close-up look at the dwarf planet, and gathering important clues about the furthest reaches of our solar system.
And the first place to procure the images will be the CSIRO’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex. Just like the 1969 Moon Landing, once again Australia is a at the forefront historic space exploration.
Like the Parkes Observatory before it, the CDSCC is one of only three tracking stations on our Earth capable of participating in the mission. The CDSCC's specific technology and personnel make it one of the only stations that has the ability to provide the vital two-way radio contact with the probe at such a long way from Earth.
At its 5 billion kilometre-distance from Earth, the weak radio signals from New Horizons take approximately four and half hours to reach home. Fortunately, thanks to the high sensitivity of the CDSCC’s dish, we should have no problem receiving clear and detailed images of Pluto.
By the time its travels are concluded, New Horizons will have collected so much information on this region of space that it will take a full year for all of the images and data to transmitted back to Earth.
The exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt has been regarded as a high priority by the likes of NASA, the US National Academy of Sciences and by the CSIRO. This region of space is said to contain important clues as to the conception and evolution of our solar system.
“Reaching this part of our solar system has been a space science priority for years, because it holds building blocks of our solar system that have been stored in a deep freeze for billions of years.” Dr Lewis Balls, Head of CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science, said.
“CSIRO is capturing space history in the making. We will be rewriting textbooks and science that will be taught in the classrooms of tomorrow.”
CDSCC is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network and has been involved in tracking New Horizons since it launched in January 2006.