Three billion miles and nearly a decade later, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has arrived at Pluto. But the milestone journey is only just beginning.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, July 14, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto yet—approximately 7,750 miles above the dwarf planet’s surface. But we won’t actually know if it was successful until later this evening. The spacecraft is currently in data-gathering mode, and won’t be in contact with flight controllers until later on Tuesday. Scientists have no idea what to expect, which makes these achievements so exciting.
The next “phone home” transmission isn’t expected until shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday evening, NASA said. For now, we await what new information the intrepid spacecraft has to share. Over the past few months, New Horizons has learned a lot about the dwarf planet, revealing its size and color (as we’d see it with our own two eyes).
Getting an up-close view of Pluto and its five moons will provide scientists with a better understanding of the origins of our solar system, and the Kuiper Belt in particular. According to Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator, the spacecraft is currently gathering a “textbook” on Pluto—10 years’ worth of information that will take the next 16 months to transmit back to Earth.
NASA says that the spacecraft’s final approach took about one minute less than predicted, and required the threading of a needle through a 36-by-57 mile window, or “the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.”
As celebrations continue throughout the day, we’re still waiting for the spacecraft to ping NASA, like hoping for someone to call for a second date. When it does, an avalanche of information, and new images, should come streaming in. The image you see above was shared by New Horizons just before its final approach. You can see the dwarf planet’s “heart” in greater detail than we’ve ever seen it.