Almost 10 years ago, the New Horizons spacecraft was launched on a long mission to reach the ninth planet in our solar system: Pluto. After a journey of over three billion miles… mission accomplished.
On Tuesday, July 14, 2015, the history of space exploration changed forever, as New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto, at a distance of approximately 7,750 miles from the dwarf planet’s surface. “Roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India,” according to a statement issued by Charles Bolden, administrator of the United States National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) in a press release. “The exploration of Pluto and its moons by New Horizons represents the capstone event to 50 years of planetary exploration by NASA and the United States.”
The New Horizons probe is equipped with several instruments prepared to gather loads of information and photos. Even before the approach, it had already sent back images of Pluto, sending higher resolution pictures the closer it got, allowing a better view of the planet’s surface. The probe’s sensor also sent information on the composition of Pluto’s atmosphere, which was registered as a thin expanding layer of nitrogen.
Aside from the photos and the description of the atmosphere, New Horizons also took measurements of the planet, revealing it to be larger than previously thought. The probe is expected to make contact with the control center at 9pm ET Tuesday July 14, sending off a 15 minute signal, which will indicate if the spacecraft has survived the flyby. It would be a great disappointment if it didn’t, as 99% of the data is still on the craft itself, according to the mission’s lead scientist Alan Stern, who spoke to British daily The Guardian.
After the mission is completed, New Horizons will continue on its path into the Kuiper Belt powered by its nuclear generator that should run until the 2030’s. For now, the probe will begin sending 10 years’ worth of information back to Earth. It will take 16 months to send its entire cache of data.