NASA’s Pluto-bound spacecraft will finally reach its destination on the morning of July 14, 2015, said Alan Stern, planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. The space agency launched the New Horizons mission in January 2006. That means, it will take New Horizons about 8.5 years to travel about three billion miles.
Pluto was discovered in 1930
Stern said July 14, 2015 will be Bastille day, “to celebrate we are storming the gates of Pluto.’ Today, Pluto is a dwarf planet. It was first discovered in 1930, and scientists know quite a bit about its properties by studying it through the Hubble telescope. But once New Horizons reaches there, its high-tech instruments would provide us new insights. Stern, who is the principal investigator of the mission, said all that we know about the dwarf planet is by studying it from billions of mile away. Many of the existing notions and beliefs about Pluto could be overturned after we see things up close.
Pluto is about 4.67 billion miles away from the Earth at the most distant point, when the two are on the opposite sides of the sun. But the distance between the two is 2.66 billion miles when they are closest. The dwarf planet’s surface has a chilling temperature of -380 degrees Fahrenheit. It has a radius of 733 miles, and its surface is covered with nitrogen ice. Pluto has a thin atmosphere of methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide.
New Horizons will also take a detailed look at Pluto’s biggest moon
Pluto has five moons. The biggest of them is Charon, which was discovered in 1978. Researchers believe that Charon may have had an underground ocean. New Horizons will also take a detailed look at Charon, which would help scientists figure out whether there really existed an underground ocean. Two other Plutonian moons, Nix and Hydra, were discovered in 2005. Astronomers observed the remaining two, Kerberos and Styx, in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
The spacecraft will pass the BTH (beyond the Hubble) line in January 2015. That means, it will start sending images of the dwarf planet that would be better and clearer than those captured by the Hubble telescope. Stern says we might see some big surprises starting next year. New Horizons will map most of the surface of the dwarf planet at high-resolution by watching it rotate on its axis.
Moreover, the probe will sample the atmospheric composition of Pluto, take the temperature of its surface, and bounce radio waves off its surface to let scientists know about its underground features.