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After Three Billion Miles, NASA's New Horizons Will Give Pluto Its First Close-Up

The last of the nine planets we all know by name is finally getting a visit.


Its a rare thing for humanity to visit another planet — or in this case a former planet since demoted to a “minor planet” — but this week is one of those times.

Sometime on Tuesday NASA’s New Horizons space probe will fly within less than 8,000 miles of Pluto (pictured above in a photo taken July 7 from just under five million miles away). It will be the first time a spacecraft from Earth has visited. It will also mark the last of the nine planets most of us memorized as kids to be visited. NASA and other space agencies have sent spacecraft to every other planet, so the flyby will be a unique milestone in human history. We will have visited — virtually — all the major destinations in the solar system within 53 years.

The encounter will occur a little more than 85 years since Pluto was discovered by the late astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, and the spacecraft carries some of his ashes.

New Horizons was launched atop an Atlas V rocket in 2006, and has flown more than three billion miles to Pluto by way of a gravity assist at Jupiter at a speed of about 36,000 miles per hour, making it arguably one of the fastest spacecraft ever. (The debate about “fastest ever” is a nuanced one as this article from Scientific American explains.) It passed the orbit of our moon in about nine hours — versus a four-day trip for the Apollo astronauts — and reached Jupiter in about a year.

With NASA being as much a public relations agency as it is one of science, there are naturally many ways to follow the action. For one thing there’s NASA TV, which will broadcast a live stream and which is also carried on many cable and satellite TV systems. The network will be going pretty much wall-to-wall with New Horizons coverage. The spacecraft also has a Twitter account and a YouTube channel.

Finally, if you’re really into the finer details of this orbital encounter, there’s NASA’s “Eyes on Pluto” app for Mac and Windows. The app pulls live spacecraft data — its speed, course and position relative to Pluto and its moons — to give you a truly detailed view of what NASA scientists are seeing. You can also spin time forward and simulate the fly-by yourself.

Until now the best pictures we have had of Pluto have been heavily pixelated, and a lot of what science knows about it — and that’s not much — has been assembled only with the kind of observations one can get from a telescope at great distance. The rest has been conjecture. Scientists have always been surprised by this kind of close-up observation at every other planet. So expect a lot of surprises.

Here’s a two-minute NASA animation showing the highlights of the flight.

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