The first mission to Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, has begun its six-month encounter with Pluto on Thursday, with the first close-up flyby of the dwarf planet scheduled for July 14.
“NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly.”
After a voyage of nine years covering 4.8 billion km (3 billion miles), the piano-sized probe awoke from its final hibernation period in early December for the encounter, and on Thursday, several science instruments on board, including a space-dust detector, were activated.
In a statement, Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, said, “We’ve completed the longest journey any craft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring!”
According to the space agency, the fastest spacecraft when it was launched, New Horizons lifted off in January 2006. It awoke from its final hibernation period last month after a voyage of more than 3 billion miles, and will soon pass close to Pluto, inside the orbits of its five known moons.
In preparation for the close encounter, the mission’s science, engineering and spacecraft operations teams configured the piano-sized probe for distant observations of the Pluto system that start on January 25 with a long-range photo shoot.
The pictures, as per the statement, will give mission scientists a continually improving look at the dynamics of Pluto’s moons. The images also will play a critical role in navigating the spacecraft as it covers the remaining 135 million miles (220 million kilometers) to Pluto.
“We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it,” said Mark Holdridge, the New Horizons’ encounter mission manager from Johns Hopkins University.
“The flyby timing also has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto which these images will help us determine.”
The probe’s instruments will also measure the high-energy particles streaming from the sun and dust-particle concentrations in the inner reaches of the Kuiper Belt, the unexplored outer region of the solar system that includes Pluto and potentially thousands of similar icy, rocky small planets.
The probe will then head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine one or two of the ancient, icy small worlds in that vast region, which is at least 1.6 billion km (one billion miles) beyond Pluto.
Pluto’s closest approach is scheduled for July 14, when New Horizons will pass within 10,000 km (6,200 miles) of the dwarf planet’s surface, travelling at a speed of 43,000 km (27,000 miles) per hour.