Nearly 10 years and 3 billion miles later, NASA's unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is finally nearing Pluto. It'll make the closest ever flyby of the dwarf planet, giving scientists a new glimpse into its icy exterior.
"Nothing like this has been done in a quarter century and nothing like this is planned by any space agency ever again," Alan Stern, the principal investigator on the New Horizons mission said.
This week, he and his team confirmed that the New Horizons spacecraft would come within 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto on July 14.
Launched in 2006, the 1,000-pound (465-kilogram) spacecraft has been traveling through the solar system "in record time," according to a NASA press release, to reach what was considered the farthest planet from the sun, but was later demoted to the status of dwarf planet.
New Horizons is approximately the size of a baby grand piano and is carrying a "scientific arsenal" on board to collect new data about Pluto
Scientists hope to glean information about Pluto's atmosphere, plasma and geology, as well as measurements that can help them "characterize the space environment near Pluto." New Horizons will also gather data about its five moons.
NASA has already begun receiving new images of Pluto and expects to receive better-quality photos as the unmanned craft flies closer to the icy celestial body. However, it won't be taking any snapshots on July 14, but will instead be focusing on collecting information as it travels at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour (50,000 kilometers per hour).
The plutonium-powered craft will then travel on to the Kuiper Belt, the disc-shaped region beyond the orbit of Neptune at the edge of the solar system.
The team, comprised of researchers from Johns Hopkins, the Southwest Research Institute and NASA's Marshal Space Flight Center in Alabama, expect to receive the final data by October 2016.
kms/sms (AFP, dpa)