We’re less than a year away from meeting Pluto, the former planetary member of our Solar System—now downgraded to a “Dwarf Planet,” but it’s still has its full planetary status in the hearts of many.
According to NASA, the New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, should reach Pluto on the outer reaches of our celestial neighborhood by July 2015. The visit will be the first humanity has ever made to the far-flung neighbor.
"Many predictions have been made by the science community, including possible rings, geyser eruptions, and even lakes," Adriana Ocampo, program executive for NASA's New Frontiers program, said in a statement. "Whatever we find, I believe Pluto and its satellites will surpass all our expectations and surprise us beyond our imagination."
Pluto orbits our sun at an average of 3.65 billion miles away, so its surface is obviously chilly. New Horizon’s flyby is scheduled to take place July 15th, and the spacecraft should take photographs that rival the Hubble telescope’s images.
"Because Pluto has never been visited up close by a spacecraft from Earth, everything we see will be a first," Ocampo said. "I know this will be an astonishing experience full of history-making moments."
The spacecraft will come as close as 6,200 miles to the surface. According to NASA, if New Horizons photographed our planet at that height, we would be able to make out the shapes of buildings from the images.
Hubble has been given the go-ahead to identify other far-out objects near Pluto that New Horizons could check out after seeing what’s going on with Pluto.
"Once again the Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated the ability to explore the Universe in new and unexpected ways," according to John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. "Hubble science is at its best when it works in concert with other NASA missions and ground based observatories."
"I am delighted that our initial investment of Hubble time paid off. We are looking forward to see if the team can find a suitable KBO [Kuiper belt objects] that New Horizons might be able to visit after its fly-by of Pluto,” said STScI director Matt Mountain.
The region around Pluto gets dicey with meteorites, many of which orbit the dwarf planet. The team controlling New Horizons, then, are very aware of the challenges needed to get the spacecraft to its target undamaged.
"The New Horizons team continues to do a magnificent job in keeping the spacecraft healthy and ready for this incredible rendezvous," Ocampo said. "The spacecraft is in good hands."