New Horizons’ closest approach was scheduled for 4:49 a.m. PDT when the spacecraft would be just 7,800 miles away – close enough to take the first high-resolution images of Pluto’s mottled landscape. But over the past few weeks, we have been able to enjoy increasingly more detailed images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on its approach to Pluto.
Pluto’s diameter also affects the size of its atmosphere, which New Horizons has learned is bleeding off into space at a faster rate than expected.
This picture was taken yesterday evening at 9pm United Kingdom time, at around 476,000m (766,000km) from the surface, and posted to Nasa’s Instagram page today.
The mission already has captured the spotlight – in forms ranging from Tuesday’s Google Doodle to a Baltimore Sun op-ed column in which White House science adviser John Holdren and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden hail New Horizons as “a new milestone” in exploration and discovery.
The mission marks the end of the U.S. space agency’s bid to explore every planet in the solar system, starting with Venus in 1962.
The probe is now around 31,000 miles from Pluto’s surface.
Pluto has sent us all its images so far and is now focusing on data acquisition alone.
This latest image of Pluto was returned from New Horizons on Monday, July 13.
Pluto was identified in 1930 by U.S. astronomer Clyde Tombaugh using a 13-inch photographic telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“All of these things that we know tonnes about about all the other planets, we just haven’t a clue with Pluto”.
As of Monday morning, New Horizons was within the planetary system of Pluto. “This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock”, Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and the principal investigator for Opportunity said in a NASA statement.
Pluto is now confirmed to be the largest object in the so-called Kuiper Belt, considered the third zone of the solar system after the inner rocky planets and outer gaseous ones.
So NASA will not announce until about 13 hours after the flyby, at 9:02 pm (0302 SA time Wednesday), whether or not the spacecraft survives the high-speed encounter. Because of the way it’s designed, New Horizons has to choose between collecting data and talking to Earth-and observations trump phone calls during the close encounter.
About one percent of the data collected from the fly-by will be immediately sent back to Earth.
Never before has a spacecraft ventured into the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons has been on its way there for more than nine years – a journey of some three billion miles.
“There’s a sense amongst scientists that Pluto in all probability will inform us what the early photo voltaic system appeared like and it’s now locked in deep freeze and perhaps it can inform us what we as soon as have been, a very long time in the past”, Kruzins stated. “I don’t lose sleep over this, but fact is, tomorrow evening is going to be a little bit of drama”.
That’s still puny by solar-system standards.
Pluto’s change in status has, however, definitely not diminished the importance of the mission. It’s packed with methane and nitrogen ice.
Much more detail is expected in the days to come, according to deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin.
At the moment, NH is less than 1 million km away from Pluto, its largest moon Charon (half the size of Pluto), with which it forms a double planet system because of its large size relative to Pluto, and its four newly discovered moons: Hydra, Nix, Styx and Kerberos.