After nearly 10 years, at last we have the first images of Pluto thanks to the New Horizons probe.
Just hours ago, scientists received the most detailed shots of the dwarf planet returned by the probe, which is now under 8 million kilometres away from Pluto.
NASA’s space probe, New Horizons is due to reach its closest proximity to Pluto on July 14th. It was launched from Earth on January 19th 2006 -- and after 9 years, 5 months and 25 days travelling through space, it will finally reach the most exciting destination.
During the five-month-long, flyby, reconnaissance mission, the probe will get closest to Pluto at 9:49 pm July 14th AEST (or 7:49 am July 14th US EDT) and provide a never before seen close-up look at the ice dwarf planet.
The New Horizons mission was tasked with gathering data on the unexplored and furthest reaches of our solar system -- the parts that hold the remnants of the formation of our solar system. And in the 3458 days of travelling, the New Horizons probe has already flown by The Moon and successfully returned data on the atmospheric conditions of Jupiter.
Once it’s past Pluto, the probe will travel further into the Kuiper Belt and explore Pluto’s moons and the other icy celestial bodies at the edge of our solar system – more than 1.6 billion kilometres past the closest planet, Neptune.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, just this weekend on July 4th, the New Horizons probe shutdown and lost communication with ground control. Its processor overclocked as the probe tried to compress data it had captured while preparing to take in further data. Fortunately, NASA managed to re-establish communication with the spacecraft after discovering it went into sleep mode due to this overactivity.
The New Horizon’s mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program. With the purpose of further space exploration, the program has already helped gather new information on previously underexplored planets like Jupiter and Venus. In addition to New Horizons, New Frontiers launched mission Juno in 2011 and plans to launch mission OSIRIS-REx next year.
NASA and the US National Academy of Sciences has placed a high priority on the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – which starts from the orbit of Neptune and extends 20 AU (150 million kilometres), meaning it’s 200 times the size of the Asteroid Belt. Delving deep into this region of space hopes to answer questions about the geology and atmospheres of the ice dwarfs and other underexplored celestial bodies.
New Horizons will hopefully begin to answer some of these questions about how the ice dwarfs – Pluto and its moons - match with the rock-based and gas-based planets in our solar system. In turn, this will provide further clues as to the how our solar system evolved and formed.