For most of us on Earth, this will be our last chance to see a new planet for the first time up close and personal. Today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will finally make its pass nearest to Pluto, the much debated and no longer official planet. New Horizons has spent the past 9 years in space, traveling over 3 billion miles and passing most “landmark” planets in our solar system along the way. On July 14th, 2015, it will finally reach Pluto. No spacecraft, satellite, or high resolution imagery has come even remotely close to what New Horizons will provide us with in terms of detail regarding Pluto.
Already, New Horizons is allowing NASA’s team to make some incredible discoveries and bring forth some new information. While Pluto’s size has been debated for many years, we now have a very firm estimate on the size of Pluto. NASA’s team of specialists calculated a diameter of 1,473 miles. This is slightly larger than previous estimates. Perhaps even more exciting is the prospect of high resolution imagery which New Horizons will capture.
Already, features of the planet never before seen are coming in to focus. NASA has confirmed and continues to research several emerging features on the planet as the spacecraft grows ever closer. A crater, bright and dark spots, and numerous markings have already been identified on the surface of the cold, icy rock at the edge of our solar system.
Pluto sits on the very edge of our solar system, with minimal sunlight and appears very faint even when viewed with powerful telescopes. Its orbit actually takes it into the Keuper belt — a belt of asteroids on the very periphery of our solar system — for a period of time. New Horizons will head there next.
Still, the space craft has its date with Pluto today. New imagery from Pluto will take until Wednesday to get here from New Horizons. Yes, it’s that far away. Many here on Earth will be waiting, excited, and somewhat nostalgic for this final opportunity to view a new planet up close for the first time.