NASA prepares for ‘New Horizons’ to pass by Pluto

NASA says New Horizons spacecraft is on track to be the first probe to visit Pluto — as it is due to pass the planet in less than 24 hours.

LAUREL, MARYLAND, USA (JULY 13, 2015) (NASA) – NASA’s New Horizons team leaders held a news conference on Monday (July 13) to announce that the spacecraft was on course to pass Pluto within a day.

“20 Hours, 22 minutes zero seconds, we are about 625,000 miles (1,005,840 km) from Pluto right now I won’t read down the numbers as they go but it’s going to be a really dynamic next 24 hours plus,” former astronaut and five time space traveler, John Grunsfeld said.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is poised to become the first probe to visit distant Pluto, capping a reconnaissance of the solar system that began more than 50 years ago.

“All of a sudden it’s like the freight train is coming down the track and you see the light coming at you and you know it’s not going to stop, you can’t slow it down it’s going to get there and of course the light is Pluto and we are all excited,” Glen Fountain, New Horizons mission project manager said.

Asked about dangers from debris, Alan Stern principal investigator of New Horizon said the risk is very small even though they are “venturing into the known.”

“Until we pass that point tomorrow evening we won’t really know with certitude that we have cleared the system and there were no debris strikes, but I want to emphasize that I am not very worried about it,” Stern said.

The 3 billion-mile (5 billion-km) journey to Pluto, an unexpectedly peach-hued world with contrasting dark and light regions across its face, has taken more than nine years.

For most of the voyage – the equivalent of flying 120,477 times around Earth – the probe hibernated, saving wear-and-tear on its systems and trimming ground control costs to help the mission meet its $720 million budget.

Clipping along at 9 miles per second (14 km per second), New Horizons awoke in January to begin observations of Pluto and its primary moon, Charon, located beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt region, which was discovered in 1992.

Before then, Pluto was considered an odd, outlier ninth planet of the solar system, smaller than Earth’s moon and out of place among the gas giants that occupy what was previously considered the outer solar system.

Six months after New Horizons launched and with more than 40 Kuiper Belt objects on the books, the International Astronomical Union made a controversial call to reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet.” Astronomers have since discovered about 2,000 more Kuiper Belt residents out of a population estimated at hundreds of thousands.

Ironically, it was the discovery of the Kuiper Belt that provided the scientific motivation and money for a mission to Pluto. Scientists believe the Kuiper Belt holds fossils from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

New Horizons will conduct its science on the fly, much like NASA’s Pioneer, Mariner and Voyager missions of the 1960s to the 1980s, when exploration of the solar system began. Built lean, New Horizons does not carry propellant for a braking burn to slow down and slip into orbit around Pluto.

A computer program to orchestra every aspect of the spacecraft’s pass by Pluto began on Tuesday (July 14), following a nail-biting computer crash that suspended science operations for three days.

Timing is crucial. New Horizons will have just 30 minutes to conduct the most important part of the mission, including photographing Pluto and Charon, determining what the icy worlds are made of and scanning Pluto’s atmosphere – all done while the probe and Pluto finally cross paths.