On January 19, 2006 the New Horizons spacecraft launched on a mission to become the first probe to visit the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons. So far, the spacecraft has been travelling for six years and it still has three years to go before it will have completed its mission.
As you probably heard, New Horizons was closest to Pluto in July of this year, in what's being called the Pluto Flyby. New Horizons came within about 12, 800 kilometres of Pluto, which is pretty darn close considering Pluto is 5.87 billion kilometres from our Sun. The proximity to Pluto has resulted in some close-up photographs that are even better than the Hubble space telescope’s.
The image below was sent back on June 9 and shows Pluto and one of its moons, Charon.
The objectives of the New Horizons mission are to map the dwarf planet and its five known moons and to find out more about what its surface and atmosphere are made of. This could tell us a lot about dwarf planets, which are proving to be quite common—and we really don’t know a whole lot about them.
New Horizons is the fastest space craft ever launched from Earth, according to NASA. It can travel at speeds of around 55,404 km/h. With Pluto being over 30 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun, to date, the spacecraft has travelled over 5 billion km.
The recent news of the Pluto Flyby and the incredible images that the spacecraft has sent back to us has inspired the world to look up at the stars. We are anxiously awaiting large volumes of data about the dwarf planet and its moons.
Below is a series of images that take you through our changing perception of Pluto over the years. The final frames are taken by the New Horizons spacecraft.
And that’s not all for the spacecraft. New Horizons will become one of only five objects to leave our Solar System. The first four: Pioneers 11 & 12 and Voyagers 1 & 2, all carried messages from Earth in the hopes that, one day, they may be found by some alien civilization.
New Horizons didn’t leave with a message but it’s not too late to add one. NASA received a petition to support this goal but the message would have to be privately funded. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to spread our message across the stars and communicate to the cosmos together as one planet. If you think it's important to send a message, let them know!