NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft finally crossed planet Neptune’s orbit, after eight years and eight months, in its mission to come close to the much-distant planet Pluto.
New Horizons was launched sometime in January of 2006. It came across the orbit of Neptune that is almost 2.75 billion miles or 4.4 billion kilometers from Earth, a distance that is nearly 27 times the distance between sun and Earth.
The sophisticated spacecraft’s crossing to Neptune is considered the last major passage before its close encounter with Pluto, being the first probe to do so, on July 14. Its milestone exactly matches the 25th anniversary of Neptune and NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft’s historic encounter on Aug. 25, 1989.
"It's a cosmic coincidence that connects one of NASA's iconic past outer solar system explorers, with our next outer solar system explorer," Jim Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division director, says in a statement.
Green recalls that precisely 25 years ago Voyager 2 also delivered the “first" look at Neptune. He says it is the new spacecraft’s turn to expose Pluto and its moons next summer while on the path to exploring the massive scope of our solar system.
A principal investigator of New Horizons at Southwest Research Institute, Alan Stern also says Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 travelled the solar system’s whole middle zone wherein gigantic planets orbit.
The sophisticated New Horizons has a telescopic camera that successfully gathered on July 10 several pictures of Neptune. Voyager was also able to previously obtain new features of the said planet during its visit. For instance is the enormous storm called Great Dark Spot that is quite similar to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, as well as the ring system of the ice giant that is too distant to be seen clearly from Earth.
Ed Stone, project scientist of Voyager at California Institute of Technology, says Neptune and its moon Triton held surprises for them before. He expects the same thing with Pluto’s exploration.
Ralph McNutt of Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University also expects a surprise for such first-time explorations or encounters, saying they don’t know exactly what to see.
New Horizons spacecraft is NASA’s first mission in its New Frontiers program. The APL administers the mission for the Science Mission Directorate of NASA. The said laboratory is also responsible in developing and operating the spacecraft.