Despite having discovered Pluto is part of the solar system a long time ago, we’ve never had a detailed look this frozen wonderland. Even with the Hubble space telescope this planet looks like a pixle-ated, blurred smudge. The plant is 4.8bn km away and so small about two-thirds the size of the Earth’s moon. However, NASA’s aircraft ‘New Horizons’ (which looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment) is now close enough – bearing down on the dwarf at 5,100km/h. The probe is set to fly past Pluto, its cameras snapping away and gathering data of all kinds. Mission time is said to be 11.49am GMT on 14 July.
NASA has already released images of dark spots previously spotted on the planet and its Moon Ceres.
The mission is a dangerous one. New Horizons is the fastest spaceship ever launched from Earth – even the slightest bit of collision could be disastrous for this mission.
“We are running the anchor leg in a 50-year exploration of the planets,” says Alan Stern, the principal investigator – leader – of the New Horizons mission. He is absolutely over the moon about the mission. “I tell people, this is it, it’s the last picture show, it’s the last train to Clarksville. Better watch!”
“This” – he pauses dramatically – “is a moment. People should watch it. They should sit their freakin’ kids down and say, think about this technology. Think about people who worked on this for 25 years to bring this knowledge… It’s a long way to go to the outer edge, the very edge of the solar system.”
The headquarters of the New Horizons mission is the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Maryland. A mural outside the New Horizons mission control room reads “The Year of Pluto.”
Even at the speed of light, a one-way message to or from New Horizons needs a 4.5-hour trip. When sending a message, APL technicians have to aim where the spacecraft will be 4.5 hours in the future, the way a clay-pigeon shooter aims in front of the target.
Many people at APL have been with New Horizons since the launch in 2006. “We know this spacecraft very well. It’s our baby,” said Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager. “It went through its toddler stage where it was a little ornery.”
The spacecraft’s main computer rebooted itself occasionally. Her team has had to upload corrective software. Even with advanced technology, she said, “There’s always risks involved when you’re sending 1s and 0s across billions of miles of space.”
Stern keeps on display in his office the August 1970 issue of National Geographic describing a future “grand tour” of the planets by robotic spacecraft. An article foretold a visit to Pluto in 1986. Nasa’s two Voyager spacecraft carried out the grand tour, flying past Jupiter and Saturn, with Voyager 2 going all the way to Uranus and Neptune, but the best route for studying Saturn and its huge moon Titan didn’t permit Voyager 2 to visit Pluto, Stern said.
Moreover, Nasa didn’t realise, when it put together the Voyager programme, that there are thousands of icy objects beyond Neptune’s orbit – a region dubbed the Kuiper Belt. The two Voyager spacecraft turned off their cameras once they reached that region of supposedly empty space, said Nasa director of planetary science Jim Green.
“We believe there are tens of thousands of Kuiper Belt objects,” Green said.