INFRASTRUCTURE

This spacecraft is about to make the first visit to Pluto

Of the rocks in our solar system, Pluto is perhaps the most mysterious. We know next to nothing about the former planet (which might be a planet yet), whose small size and distance from Earth—2.7 to 4.7 billion miles—make it hard to observe for even powerful telescopes like the Hubble:

Pluto and moon Charon.
Pluto and moon Charon. (R. Albrecht, ESA/ESO)

That’s about to change, thanks to a little NASA spacecraft known as New Horizons. Launched on a mission to Pluto in January 2006, New Horizons went into sleep mode for much of its eight-year journey out to the edge of our solar system. On Saturday, NASA scientists woke the craft up for the final, 162 million mile leg of its trip.

At its closest flyby, expected to take place July 14, 2015, New Horizons might pass as close as 6,200 miles from Pluto. That would allow the onboard cameras to take much higher-resolution photos of Pluto and its five moons. (Though compressed photos will initially be sent back to Earth, the uncompressed images will take nine months to be transmitted back via the Deep Space Network—and you thought your cell data was slow.)

Until then, NASA will be giving test commands to the spacecraft to make sure everything is in order post-slumber.

And afterwards? If New Horizons makes it through the fray, it will continue to the outer edge of the heliosphere, following the paths set by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, the most distant objects created by mankind.

Here’s a video released by NASA with more details:

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