At last, NASA's spacecraft bound for Pluto starts collecting data

After 9.5 years, NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto is getting busy

Let the data collection begin! NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has finally started the first science phase of its mission to get up close and personal with the dwarf planet Pluto.

The journey has been epic -- 9.5 years across more than 3 billion miles of space -- the longest distance to a primary target that any spacecraft has ever flown.

This week, instruments aboard New Horizons began measuring the dust and charged particles in Pluto's environment, and in just a few days, the spacecraft will start photographing the dwarf planet using a long-range lens.

The images will provide the New Horizons team with more information about the dynamics between Pluto and its five known moons, which in turn will help navigators guide the spacecraft to a close encounter with the icy body in mid-July.

At the time of its closest approach, on July 14, New Horizons will fly within 7,700 miles of Pluto, revealing the topography and composition of this distant world in dazzling detail. 

As of now, the best image we have of Pluto is fuzzy and pixelated. The resolution is so low that in a comparable image of Earth, even the continents would not be visible. After New Horizons' flyby, we should be able to see mountains and craters on the dwarf planet's surface. In some places, the resolution will be high enough to pick out features as small as a pond in New York City's Central Park

"What I am most excited about is taking this point of light and transforming it into a planet," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. 

The spacecraft is still 135 million miles from its target, so this first batch of images will be similar in quality to the best images we already have of Pluto, which were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in the 90s. But they are essential for improving current estimates of exactly how far the spacecraft currently is from its destination.

"The flyby timing has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto," said Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement. 

This moment has been a long time coming. The New Horizons mission was greenlit by NASA in 2001, and launched in 2006.

When it left Earth nearly a decade ago, New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft in our solar system, but it had a long trip ahead -- Pluto is 4.67 billion miles from Earth. At that distance, a signal from New Horizons moving at the speed of light will still take more than 4 hours to get back to Earth.   

As New Horizons continues on the first phase of its approach to Pluto over the next few weeks, other instruments will start taking measurements of the dust and high energy particles in Pluto's environment.

Even more data collection will begin in the spring -- so stay tuned! 

Science rules! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


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