NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has spent more than nine years traveling in space to fulfill its mission to study Pluto. On Tuesday, July 14, the probe will be within 6,200 miles of the dwarf planet's surface making history as the first spacecraft to rendezvous with the icy world.
The spacecraft's journey started in Jan. 19, 2006 when it was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its first 13 months of journey were marked by probe and instrument checkout, calibration of instruments, small trajectory correction maneuvers and rehearsals for the probe's encounter with Jupiter.
On April 7, 2006, the New Horizons passed the orbit of Mars. In June of same year, it tracked a small asteroid which was later called APL.
On Feb. 28, 2007, the probe had its closest approach to Jupiter moving around 50,000 miles per hour. The probe flew close enough to Jupiter its proximity to the planet is between two to four times closer than what was achieved by the Cassini spacecraft, which only came within 1.4 million miles of the giant planet.
The New Horizons also crossed the orbits of several other planets including Saturn on June 8, 2008; Uranus on March 18, 2011, and Neptune on Aug. 25, 2014. For eight years of its cruise towards Pluto, the spacecraft had annual checkouts of spacecraft and instruments, instrument calibration, trajectory corrections and rehearsals for its Pluto encounter. The New Horizon's mission team also discovered Kuiper Belt Objects in 2014 using the Hubble Space Telescope.
Now, after travelling 3 billion miles for more than nine years, the New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft launched, will make a milestone when it will come closest to Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EDT on Tuesday. It will pass within 7,767 miles of the extraterrestrial world after which, it will flyby within 17,931 miles of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. The spacecraft already sends the best photos of Pluto and Charon back to Earth.
NASA said that the New Horizons will travel about 31,000 miles per hour during its main encounter that is expected to last between eight to 10 hours.
"What NASA's doing with New Horizons is unprecedented in our time and probably something close to the last train to Clarksville, the last picture show, for a very, very long time," said planetary scientist Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
The probe's main mission is to map the surface of Pluto, study the planet's atmosphere and take temperature readings.