Jan 17, 2015 04:45 PM EST
NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has began its long-awaited encounter with the tiny dwarf planet Pluto. Researchers have announced that the craft is entering the first of several approach phases, which will culminate on July 14 with the first ever close-up flyby of the dwarf planet, located 4.67 billion miles from Earth.
"NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind's first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system," director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, Jim Green says. "The New horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly."
New Horizons first launched into space in January 2006. During the last eight years it has traveled more than three billion miles before awakening from its final hibernation period last month. The spacecraft is now set for a rendezvous with Pluto and will soon pass inside the orbits of the five known moons of the tiny dwarf planet.
"We've completed the longest journey any spacecraft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring," New Horizons principal investigator, Alan Stern says.
Researchers hope this close flyby of Pluto will help them refine their knowledge of the mysterious dwarf planet. However, for the mission to be successful, the timing needs to be exact, since the computer commands which will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time that it will pass by Pluto.
"We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it," New Horizons encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Mark Holdridge says.
During the first approach phase, which will run from now until spring, the instruments of the spacecraft will continue to gather data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits. This includes measurements of the high-energy particles streaming from the sun and the dust particle concentrations in the inner reaches of the Kuiper belt. In the spring, more intensive studies of Pluto will begin, when the instruments can finally provide high-resolution images of the tiny dwarf planet.
"NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind's first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system," Green says. "The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly."
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