Nine years and three billion miles ago, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on a mission to explore what we used to call the ninth planet — Pluto. The 1,000 lb, baby grand piano-sized spacecraft is scheduled to make its closest approach to the dwarf planet early Tuesday morning.
The craft was launched January 19, 2006 and immediately made history, becoming the first spacecraft launched directly into a solar escape trajectory. It’s powerful engines allowed it to achieve speeds of more than 16 miles a second, passing the orbit of the moon in less than 8 hours. After slingshotting around Jupiter for a gravity assist, it is now on course to fly within 7,800 miles of Pluto.
Early low res photos of Pluto are causing a great deal of excitement among astronomers, as several strange features have already been sighted, along with some mysterious dark spots.
Guarantees principal scientist Alan Stern, “We’re going to knock your socks off.”
The size of a baby grand piano, the spacecraft will come closest to Pluto on Tuesday morning — at 7:49 a.m. EDT. That’s when New Horizons is predicted to pass within 7,767 miles of Pluto. Fourteen minutes later, the spacecraft will zoom within 17,931 miles of Charon, Pluto’s jumbo moon.
For the plutophiles among us, it will be cause to celebrate, especially for those gathered at the operations center at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The lab designed and built the spacecraft for NASA, and has been managing its roundabout route through the solar system.
“What NASA’s doing with New Horizons is uprecedented in our time and probably something close to the last train to Clarksville, the last picture show, for a very, very long time,” says Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
It is the last stop in NASA’s quest to explore every planet in our solar system, starting with Venus in 1962. And in a cosmic coincidence, the Pluto visit falls on the 50th anniversary of the first-ever flyby of Mars, by Mariner 4.
Yes, we all know Pluto is no longer an official planet, merely a dwarf, but it still enjoyed full planet status when New Horizons rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 19, 2006. Pluto’s demotion came just seven months later, a sore subject still for many.
“We’re kind of running the anchor leg with Pluto to finish the relay,” Stern says.
The sneak peeks of Pluto in recent weeks are getting “juicier and juicier,” says Johns Hopkins project scientist Hal Weaver. “The science team is just drooling over these pictures.”
The Hubble Space Telescope previously captured the best pictures of Pluto. If the pixelated blobs of pictures had been of Earth, though, not even the continents would have been visible.
The New Horizons team is turning “a point of light into a planet,” Stern says.
An image released last week shows a copper-colored Pluto bearing, a large, bright spot in the shape of a heart.
Although New Horizons will try to image another dwarf planet in the Kuiper belt, it won’t come within a few million kilometers of the object, designated VNH004.
This is literally the last hurrah for NASA exploring new worlds and I feel blessed to have been with the agency all through this glorious first circuit of our solar system. The mountains of information we’ve learned from these missions to the planets have allowed us to understand our planet better, as well as glimpse the very origins of our tiny corner of the universe we call the solar system.