Distant Pluto finally gets its day in the sun

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Published: July 10, 2015 8:20:56 PM

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is poised to become the first probe to visit distant Pluto, capping a reconnaissance of the solar system that began more than 50 years ago.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is poised to become the first probe to visit distant Pluto, capping a reconnaissance of the solar system that began more than 50 years ago.

The 3 billion-mile (5 billion-km) journey to Pluto, an unexpectedly peach-hued world with contrasting dark and light regions across its face, has taken more than nine years.

For most of the voyage  – the equivalent of flying 120,477 times around Earth – the probe hibernated, saving wear-and-tear on its systems and trimming ground control costs to help the mission meet its $720 million budget.

Clipping along at 9 miles per second (14 km per second), New Horizons awoke in January to begin observations of Pluto and its primary moon, Charon, located beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt region, which was discovered in 1992.

Before then, Pluto was considered an odd, outlier ninth planet of the solar system, smaller than Earth’s moon and out of place among the gas giants that occupy what was previously considered the outer solar system.

Six months after New Horizons launched and with more than 40 Kuiper Belt objects on the books, the International Astronomical Union made a controversial call to reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet.” Astronomers have since discovered about 2,000 more Kuiper Belt residents out of a population estimated at hundreds of thousands.

Ironically, it was the discovery of the Kuiper Belt that provided the scientific motivation and money for a mission to Pluto. Scientists believe the Kuiper Belt holds fossils from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

New Horizons will conduct its science on the fly, much like NASA’s Pioneer, Mariner and Voyager missions of the 1960s to the 1980s, when exploration of the solar system began. Built lean, New Horizons does not carry propellant for a braking burn to slow down and slip into orbit around Pluto.

A computer program to orchestra every aspect of the spacecraft’s pass by Pluto began on Tuesday, following a nail-biting computer crash that suspended science operations for three days.

Timing is crucial. New Horizons will have just 30 minutes to conduct the most important part of the mission, including photographing Pluto and Charon, determining what the icy worlds are made of and scanning Pluto’s atmosphere – all done while the probe and Pluto finally cross paths.

“After traveling for nine and half years, we have to know within 100 seconds where Pluto is,” said project manager Glen Fountain.

New Horizons is expected to come as close as 7,800 miles (12,500 km) from Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EDT/1149 GMT on Tuesday.

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