After being in space for the last eight years, (ever since it left Earth’s orbit), the NASA New Horizons Probe has been passing by new and exciting worlds. Now, the probe reached Neptune’s orbit, on a speedy course to Pluto and its moon, Charon. The New Horizons probe will give humanity new information about the dwarf planet which is no longer a member of the sun’s family.
The probe is scheduled to arrive near Pluto at 7:49:59 AM on the 14th of July 2015. The nuclear powered spacecraft will then study both the dwarf planet and its five moons. The $700 million mission involves an extremely powerful suite of instruments which will allow the New Horizons probe to closely analyze Pluto in spite of the fact that it will be passing within 6,200 miles from the dwarf planet.
Because the distance between Pluto and Earth is so big, it will take signals some time to reach home. Radio signals will cross the gulf in around 4.5 hours, while a few high-priority images would take several days to receive. The complete set of observations would be available to us in over nine months.
By the time we will be receiving the images, the New Horizons probe will already be on its way to the Kuiper Belt. In this cold realm of planet formation leftovers and comets, astronomers can only hope to find other dwarf planets in the probe’s trajectory.
Alan Stern, main investigator for the New Horizons, believes that the study of Pluto as well as the encounter with several bodies in the Kuiper Belt marks the entrance to the new era of planetary exploration. He explains that what astronomers used to call “outer solar system” is actually the middle zone of the solar system (it’s where the giant planets reside). The true outer solar system is the Kuiper Belt, in which dwarf planets aren’t a seldom occurrence (as astronomers though Pluto was). Consequently, Stern says that now, experts can finally see such dwarf planets in context.
Stern added that New Horizons is now on route to the richest, first discovered and most complex dwarf planet.
Curiously, 25 years ago to the day, Voyager 2 was also flying past Neptune’s orbit and Triton, its peculiar moon as New Horizons is now doing.
Stern says that for many of the astronomers taking part in the project, efforts began 25 years ago, when Voyager 2 was flying by Neptune and will culminate in 1 year when the probe reaches Pluto.