Countdown to Pluto

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Posted January 16, 2014
Countdown to Pluto
An artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto. Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI
One of the fastest spacecraft ever built—NASA’s New Horizons—is hurtling through the void at nearly one million miles per day. Launched in 2006, it has been in flight longer than some missions last, and it is nearing its destination: Pluto.

“The encounter begins next January,” says Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute and the mission’s principal investigator. “We’re less than a year away.”

Closest approach is scheduled for July 2015 when New Horizons flies only 10,000 km from Pluto, but the spacecraft will be busy long before that date. The first step, in January 2015, is an intensive campaign of photography by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager or “LORRI.” This will help mission controllers pinpoint Pluto’s location, which is uncertain by a few thousand kilometers.

“LORRI will photograph the planet against known background star fields,” explains Stern. “We’ll use the images to refine Pluto’s distance from the spacecraft, and then fire the engines to make any necessary corrections.”

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