NASA’s New Horizons Probe Shoots Past Pluto

I know it’s not a planet anymore, but Pluto is still worth checking out. At least NASA thinks so.

The New Horizons probe launched in January of 2006, with the goal of collecting photos and data from Pluto and beyond. New Horizons will continue to fly out into the Kuiper Belt into the 2030s, when its plutonium-powered nuclear reactor is expected to give out.

Pluto is the last planet of the classic solar system to be explored, which means that the USA is the first country to have “probed” every planet. New Horizons sent back a new image of Pluto on July 13, but that image was already nine hours old when it got to Earth because of the time it takes radio waves to travel such large distances.

Speaking of that, the distances and speeds involved here are quite impressive. Already, the New Horizons probe has travelled three billion miles at an average speed of 34,000 miles per hour. Consider the timing and planning involved here as well. Pluto takes 247.7 Earth years to orbit the sun. Even the slightest miscalculation in trajectory or velocity would mean the probe missed Pluto (or ran into it).

For now, the probe is not set to make contact with Earth until today, though the flyby already occurred.

Scientists now face an agonising wait for news from the spacecraft, which is due to call home at 2am BST Wednesday (9pm ET Tuesday). Only when that 15 minute-long signal is received will NASA officials know whether New Horizons survived the flyby.

One of the greatest hazards the spacecraft faces is dust that may form a hazy cloud around Pluto after being knocked off its moons by meteorite strikes. Hal Weaver, a scientist on the mission, said that colliding with a dust particle the size of a grain of rice could potentially destroy the mission. But the risk of such a catastrophic failure was low, at less than one in 10,000.

“I am feeling a little bit nervous, but I have absolute confidence it’s going to do what it needs to do, and turn around and send us that burst of data,” Bowman said.

Maybe the data on New Horizons will redefine Pluto’s status again? My childhood would certainly be thankful for the return.