New Horizons Spacecraft Approaches Pluto

July 14, 2015 – New Horizons is speeding toward a historic flyby of Pluto and will pass through the Pluto system at 5:49 a.m. MDT today. After traveling nine years and 3 billion miles, New Horizons will come within 8,000 miles of Pluto.

The flyby is well under way – the spacecraft has been in “encounter mode” since July 8, and has a pre-programmed sequence of observations that it will make. This is because communications take 4.5 hours to reach the spacecraft and another 4.5 to return to Earth, making it impossible to communicate in real-time.

During the approach, New Horizons will make engage in a series of observations and activities that will bring Pluto and its five known moons into sharper focus than humankind has ever seen.

The encounter will complete the initial reconnaissance of the classical solar system and shed light on the mysterious “third” zone of small planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt, a large area with numerous objects beyond Neptune’s orbit.

The spacecraft’s suite of seven science instruments – which includes cameras, spectrometers, and plasma and dust detectors – will map the geology of Pluto and Charon and map their surface compositions and temperatures; examine Pluto’s atmosphere, and search for an atmosphere around Charon; study Pluto’s smaller satellites; and look for rings and additional satellites around Pluto.

“New Horizons is one of the great explorations of our time,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver at APL. “There’s so much we don’t know, not just about Pluto, but other worlds like it. We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch.”

You can tune into this historic mission on NASA TV beginning at 5:30 a.m. MDT. After the flyby, there will a new image release. This will be an image that was downloaded by the New Horizons team yesterday, and will offer our current best look at Pluto.

New Horizons will be collecting data throughout the day, but to allow the spacecraft to work as efficiently as possible, the data will not begin downloading until tomorrow.

At 6:30 p.m. MDT, NASA TV will share the suspenseful moments of this historic event with the public and museums around the world. The New Horizons spacecraft will send a preprogrammed signal after the closest approach. The mission team on Earth should receive the signal by about 7:02 p.m. MDT. When New Horizons “phones home,” there will be a celebration of its successful flyby and the anticipation of data to come in the days and months ahead.