The New Horizons space probe to Pluto is all set to take first close-up pictures of the icy dwarf planet.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the New Horizons spacecraft in January 2006 from Cape Canaveral. The mission is a part of the New Frontiers program that will take the first close-ups of the planet's mysterious and unexplored world.
New Horizons' trip to Pluto over the last nine years is of about 3 billion miles, or 5 billion kilometers (km), which makes it the longest journey any spacecraft has traveled from the Earth. The probe was also the fastest spacecraft when it was launched. The spacecraft is still miles away from its actual destination.
"NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind's first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system," says Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. "The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly."
The first set of pictures taken by the probe will show Pluto just as a speck of light. However, the first set of data collected by New Horizons will help it to position itself properly so that it can snap better images in the near term.
The spacecraft's Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will capture images and study Pluto, its moons and the Kuiper Belt in the outer space.
NASA reveals that LORRI is programmed to take hundreds of images of the dwarf planet in the coming months, which will help scientists refine their estimates regarding the distance between Pluto and New Horizons.
Scientists suggest that the spacecraft's flyby timing across Pluto has to be precise and the images taken by LORRI will help them determine the exact flyby time.
The instruments on the probe will continuously collect data regarding the interplanetary environment during the spacecraft's first approach stage to Pluto. The spacecraft will also examine some of the unexplored regions of the outer solar system, which possibly includes Pluto-like small planets.
Detailed study of the icy planet is expected to start this spring and New Horizons' instruments will take very high resolution images in comparison to one of the most powerful telescopes on the Earth. The space probe will be the first to take very accurate images of Pluto, as well as of its moon in comparison to any other previous missions.
Check out an animation video of NASA New Horizons spacecraft on its journey to Pluto.