NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft nears the end of its 9 year, 3 billion mile journey as it approaches the former-planet Pluto. By Sunday, it will begin sending first-ever footage of the unexplored world.
New Horizons is currently more than 100 million miles from Pluto, so the first images will appear as little more than bright dots. The images will be used to help scientists measure distance and guide the spacecraft to fly by Pluto mid-July.
“It’s going to be a sprint for the next seven months, basically, to the finish line,” said Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. “We can’t wait to turn Pluto into a real world, instead of just a little pixelated blob.”
New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral in January 2006 on a $700 million budget. Last month, flight controllers began preparing the spacecraft for the most important phase of its journey.
“We have been working on this project, some people, for over a quarter of their careers, to make this mission happen,” said project manager Glen Fountain of the Applied Physics Lab. “And now we’re about to hit the mother lode.”
The spacecraft will relay hundreds of images of Pluto and its moon Charon back to earth through the upcoming months. Scientists plan to release the image publicly in early February.
By May, the photos taken by New Horizons will surpass the quality of those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Images will continue to improve and reveal more about the former-planet as the spacecraft continues to travel closer.
New Horizons will pass Pluto on July 14 at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour. It will be 7,700 miles from Pluto and 18,000 miles from Charon.