Scientists at the nearby Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory are gearing up for the culmination of a nine-year mission to explore Pluto and its biggest moon, Charon.
The New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, is already sending back the best images of the dwarf planet NASA has ever seen—and they’re only getting better.
Tomorrow at 7:58 a.m. ET, New Horizons will pass 7,800 miles by Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour. It won’t go into orbit around Pluto but will be sending back amazing images as it flies by the system.
NASA will have live coverage of the Pluto flybystreaming live on its website starting at 7:30 a.m. ET.
It’s an amazing piece of science for a team tasked with sending a piano-sized spacecraft 3 billion miles through space to intercept with Pluto.
Before New Horizons, not much was known about Pluto, which was demoted to “dwarf planet” status after scientists discovered other similar-sized bodies in its region of the solar system.
New Horizons was already on its way to Pluto in August 2006, when scientists changed the definition of a planet to include a body that “must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”
Still, scientists view studying Pluto as critically important. It may even reveal some secrets of our own home planet.
Pluto orbits the sun in the Kuiper Belt, an area beyond the orbit of Neptune that contains smaller, icy bodies formed during the Solar System’s early days.
Scientists believe that Pluto and Earth had similar early histories. But since the Earth is much closer to the warm sun, it continued developing, while Pluto largely stayed the same—giving scientists a snapshot of sorts of what the early Earth looked like.
“We know that the Earth went through the stage of growth that Pluto stopped at,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said. “This will help us connect the dots.”
New Horizons will also be the last NASA mission that lets scientists and humankind get an up-close view of a major body in the Solar System for the first time.
The other seven planets have had plenty of science done by spacecraft. And the next-closest planets that scientists have discovered around neighboring star systems are unfathomable distances away from Earth. The technology needed to reach such far off destinations may not be reached until centuries or even millennia in the future.
New Horizons reaching Pluto isn’t just the end of an extraordinary journey, it’s the end of an era for planetary discovery in our solar system.
Check out some of the recent images of Pluto and Charon above.
All images via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
|Chowchilla News Day
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