NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft officially began its six-month approach to the planet Pluto yesterday. If successful this will be the first close flyby of the icy cold dwarf planet.
Following a 3-billion-mile trek that started back in 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft is currently collecting scientific data that may reveal more about Pluto, its five moons and the section of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt. It will be the closest to Pluto in July.
In hibernation until December 5, 2014, New Horizons was hibernating in order to conserve energy as it headed toward the outer edges of the solar system. It awoke on the 5th, turning on a variety of its scientific instruments just as the NASA engineers had planned.
Project scientist Hal Weaver told the press; “New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before. For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them.”
New Horizons is carrying two spectrometers used to image both ultraviolet and infrared light. It also holds a space-dust detector and a high-resolution telescopic camera. The spacecraft is ready to both observe and measure Pluto and its surroundings.
New Horizons is presently less than 134 million miles away from Pluto. On July 14, the craft should be only 6,000 miles away from the surface of Pluto. The actual flyby will be a reportedly brief one but as new Horizons heads for the “third zone” or Kuiper Belt, it will keep beaming back additional data concerning the Pluto system for weeks following the flyby.
Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, released a statement saying: “We’ve completed the longest journey any craft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring!”
NASA New Horizons Begins Pluto Probe