An artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, currently en route to Pluto; after nine years and a journey of 3 billion miles, NASA’s New Horizons robotic probe will be woken from hibernation to begin its unprecedented mission: the study of the icy dwarf planet Pluto and its home, the Kuiper Belt.
Today marks the beginning of the world’s encounter with Pluto, as a NASA spacecraft that has journeyed for nine years begins its first phrase of approach to the dwarf planet.
The spacecraft is still 135 million miles away from Pluto, but Thursday marks a significant day for NASA scientists as the beginning of a series of phases in which the spacecraft can start studying and capturing increasingly detailed images of the Pluto system.
In just under six months, the world will catches its first close-up glimpse of Pluto when NASA’s New Horizons zooms within 6,200 miles of the dwarf planet on July 14.
New Horizons has traveled three billion miles since its launch on January 19, 2006, according to NASA. That’s farther than any other other space exploration mission has ever gone to reach its primary target.
As with space missions before it, the New Horizons spacecraft is packed with interesting memorabilia, including two U.S. flags and some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.
The spacecraft has spent about two-thirds of the time since its launch (intermittently) “in hibernation” in order to reduce the wear and tear on equipment and minimize the risk of system failures. But on December 6 last year, the spacecraft came out of hibernation and switched into active mode for its final approach.