by Brooks Hays
Laurel, Md. (UPI) Jul 14, 2013
Exactly one year from today, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to the far-away dwarf planet Pluto -- the icy pseudo-planet's first manmade visitor.
NASA launched the New Horizons mission in 2006, and the probe has been speeding toward the outer reaches of our solar system ever since.
"Not only did we choose the date, by the way, we chose the hour and the minute. And we're on track," said Alan Stern, lead investigator for NASA's Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission.
The New Horizons craft won't so much arrive at Pluto as it will whiz by -- at 6,000 miles away. Still, that's a lot closer than its controllers, whose stations at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, lie some 4.5 billion miles away.
The 6,000 miles isn't an accidental distance; it's the distance at which the closest, clearest images can be taken without becoming blurry -- a risk given New Horizons' passing speed. And 6,000 miles will be close enough to finally get a glimpse of what Pluto really looks like.
"Everything we know about Pluto comes from studying it from billions of miles away," said Stern. "But the lesson of planetary science is that when we see things up close, our ideas from afar are often overturned."
Those itching for newer, better images of Pluto won't have to necessarily wait until next July. Stern says the craft will pass the BTH (better than Hubble) line in January. In other words, at the start of 2015, New Horizons will begin returning Pluto photographs better than anything we've seen yet.
Once past Pluto, the craft will continue on to document several significant asteroids in the Kuiper belt.
The million outer planets of a star called Sol
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