A Visit to Pluto

Artist's depiction of the New Horizons spacecraft in orbit around Pluto. (click to enlarge)

The New Horizons spacecraft is currently on a 9-year-long journey to Pluto and beyond. This will be the first time that a spacecraft visits the remote dwarf planet and its three moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra. The unmanned spacecraft will fly by Pluto and its moons by June, 2015. Although New Horizons won't actually land on Pluto, it will come close enough for a detailed exploration of its surface, features, and atmosphere.

NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft on January 19, 2006. New Horizons carries a set of advanced instruments including high definition cameras, telescopes, particle detectors, sensors, and even a dust counter. These instruments will determine the composition and structure of Pluto's surface and atmosphere. The cameras will give us the first detailed view of Pluto's surface.

Even though we have detailed images of every planet in the Solar System, so far no telescope or spacecraft has been able to take detailed pictures of Pluto due to its very remote location. The best pictures of Pluto available were taken by the Hubble Telescope orbiting Earth. However, the images are very blurry because of the incredibly long distance to Pluto and its small size. The image below shows one of the best pictures we have of Pluto, showing its possible true color. However, the image doesn't show any detailed surface features. We won't know for sure what Pluto really looks like until New Horizons takes some snapshots and sends the pictures back to Earth in 2015.

This is the best image of Pluto we have so far. As you can see, it's impossible to see any detail. Click the image for a large version.

After the Pluto fly-by, New Horizons will continue traveling to the far reaches of the Solar System. It will continue studying objects beyond Pluto and will continue sending data back to Earth for several years after the Pluto fly-by.

Images courtesy of NASA.

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Dwarf Planet: a rocky body that orbits the Sun. It's considered too small to be a planet.

New Horizons Countdown