Exactly 1 year from now, NASA’s New Horizons’ spacecraft will reach its quasi-final destination. The probe will arrive at Pluto early July 14, 2015.

“Not only did we choose the date, by the way, we chose the hour and the minute. And we’re on track,” says Alan Stern, the principal investigator for NASA’s Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission.

“We’re arriving at Pluto on the morning of the 14th of July 2015,” Stern says. “It’s Bastille day. To celebrate we’re storming the gates of Pluto.”

New Horizons’ trek has been a long one. Starting way back in 2006, the spacecraft will reach its closest point on the morning of July 14 next year.

Scientists’ understanding of Pluto is limited compared to other objects in the solar system. They’ve been studying it since its discovery in 1930 and have learned a good deal about the planet. New Horizons will open scientists’ eyes to even more. Its array of high-tech instruments will lead to a deluge of data for scientists to sift through.

“Everything we know about Pluto comes from studying it from billions of miles away,” Stern. “But the lesson of planetary science is that when we see things up close, our ideas from afar are often overturned.”

Here’s some of the basics scientists know about Pluto.

– Pluto lies well beyond the other outer planets and sits about 4.5 billion miles from Earth.

– New Horizon’s shouldn’t expect to get a tan as sunlight is nearly 1,000 times fainter on Pluto than it is on Earth.

– Pluto’s rotation on its axis isn’t typical for the solar system. Pluto’s north pole is around the same spot as our equator. Uranus is the only other planet with similar rotation. Why? Scientists can’t say for sure. The prevailing theory is a large asteroid collision billions of years ago pushed Pluto over.

– Pluto has five moons. While Pluto was discovered in 1930, it’s first moon (Charon) wasn’t observed until 1978. Two smaller moons were discovered in 2005. An additional two moons were just discovered back in 2011 and 2012. Does Pluto have any more moons spinning around it? New Horizons may make a few discoveries of its own starting next year.

At the turn of 2015, New Horizons will reach a point where it can starting snapping pictures of Pluto that are better than the Hubble. In the days before July 14, 2015, New Horizons will watch Pluto rotate on its axis and capture a high-resolution map of the surface. Features about 25 miles across will viewable. Think mountain chains, crater impacts, etc.

On its closest approach, New Horizons will map out a portion of Pluto with resolution down to around 1,000 feet. Some will be even lower at 230 feet. Something similar would be a bird’s eye view of a major city with streets visible.

Other plans for New Horizons include closer looks at Pluto’s moons.

I mentioned quasi-final destination above. New Horizons main goal is Pluto, but researchers plan to send it to another Kuiper belt object after its Pluto mission. They’re using the Hubble Telescope to search for one right now.


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