On Tuesday, Jul. 14, a space probe will become the first to ever conduct a flyby of the surface of dwarf planet Pluto after nine years in transit and crossing a distance of 3.6 billion miles.

The New Horizons spacecraft, owned by NASA, is already sending back images of the dark side of Pluto that are unprecedented in their clarity and detail. In particular, the photos offer a closer view of the four mysterious spots that span approximately 300 miles each across Pluto’s dark side.

New Horizons first left Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in 2006, shortly after Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet. The completion of New Horizons’ mission will cement the U.S. as the first country to send a probe to every planet in the solar system from Mercury outwards. The main encounter will bring New Horizons within 7,800 miles of the surface of Pluto and 17,000 miles from Charon, the largest of Pluto’s moons.

The main encounter will take place over a limited window of eight to ten hours, during which time the probe can travel up to speeds of 31,000 miles per hour. The collected data then takes over four hours to reach Earth in the form of an electronic signal. Not bad, considering the billions of miles it has to cross. The mission has several main goals, including further study of the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.

Following its flyby of Pluto, New Horizons is scheduled to explore the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system that extends past Neptune’s orbit. Up to 200 times as massive as an asteroid belt, the contents of the Kuiper Belt are thought to consist mainly of small bodies that may be remnants from the earliest phases of the solar system’s creation.

“This is true exploration,” said principal investigator, Alan Stern of the New Horizons encounter in a NASA press release. “We’re going to write the book on Pluto.”

 

Activity: When Pluto was first reclassified as a dwarf planet from its original title as a planet, a great deal of debate followed and continues today. Discuss why you believe Pluto should or should not be considered a planet.

Jobs: Planetary Scientist, Meteorological Technician

Sources: CNN, Washington Post, NASA

Photo credit: Creative Commons