NASA’s New Horizons has made its closest approach to Pluto after a 10-year journey to reach the planet that is through our solar system.
New Horizons’ flyby approximately 7,750 miles above the surface of the planet marks the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.
According to NASA, the spacecraft currently is in data-gathering mode and not in contact with flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physical Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.
Scientists are now waiting to find out whether New Horizons transmits a series of status updates to Earth that indicate the spacecraft survived the flyby. The transmission is expected shortly after 2100 EDT.
Once it reestablishes contact, it will take 16 months for New Horizons to send its cache of data – 10 years’ worth – back to Earth.
“Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer’s son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system.”
New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said the mission now is writing the textbook on Pluto.
“The New Horizons team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system,” Stern said in a statement. “This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve.”
New Horizons’ three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched – travelling through the Pluto system at over 30,000mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft.
APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the mission, science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Mass: 13,050,000,000,000 billion kg (0.00218 x Earth)
Diameter: 2,370 km (+- 20km)
Known Moons: 5
Notable Moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx
Orbit Distance: 5,874,000,000 km (39.26 AU)
Orbit Period: 246.04 Earth years
Surface Temperature: -229°C
Discovery Date: 18th February 1930
Discovered By: Clyde W. Tombaugh