It’s been a journey nine years in the making. New Horizons is less than one day from soaring past Pluto and revealing the planet for the first time.
New Horizons’ journey began on January 19, 2006. In its nine year trek, the spacecraft has traveled more than 3 billion miles. Today, it’s less than one million miles away from Pluto and its moons.
In the lead up to tomorrow’s encounter, New Horizons has stayed busy snapping pictures of Pluto. NASA released incredible pictures yesterday revealing details of the icy world and its moon, Charon.
The image was taken on July 11 and is beginning to reveal surface features of Pluto. New Horizons’ mission team point out what look like possible cliffs and a prominent circular area that appears to be a crater.
A bright ‘heart’ feature begins to rotate near the upper hemisphere. New Horizons will get a good look at this feature during its closest approach.
New Horizons also captured a more detailed image of Charon. The dark polar region can easily be seen in the image below.
And, what looks like chasms on the right side. William McKinnon, a key member of the New Horizons team, describes the chasms as the “first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon.”
“New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity,” says McKinnon.
McKinnon is also interested in the dark area of the most prominent crater. Why is it dark? It could be the crater exposed a different type of icy material. Or the ice in this area could be made up of a larger grain size. The images snapped by New Horizons tomorrow should give researchers a better idea on what exactly is going on in that crater.
What to expect tomorrow
New Horizons will reach its closest point to Pluto at 7:49 a.m ET. The spacecraft will be within 7,800 miles of the planet and will gather data as it rockets past at more than 30,000 mph.
The best images should show features that are just 230 feet wide.
From around 11 p.m. ET tonight through 9:00 p.m. ET tomorrow will be the scariest point for the mission. New Horizons has waited nine years for this moment. And, it will collect the most precious data during a 22 hour period of radio silence.
If all goes well, New Horizons’ team will receive signals from the spacecraft sometime tomorrow evening. After that? New Horizons will start transmitting data to Earth.
It will be a long process, though. Nearly all of the data from tomorrow’s encounter will be transmitted back to Earth over the next year and a half. New Horizons will be sending data back at a rate slower than the modem you used when first browsing the Internet.
New Horizons’ is set to make history tomorrow morning. At some point tomorrow, we will know if it succeeded. Researchers will then pour over the data in the coming months and years to unravel the mysteries of Pluto.
Image credits: NASA