New Horizons: US spacecraft whizzes by Pluto in historic flyby

Published July 14, 2015
This image provided by NASA shows Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft. —AP
This image provided by NASA shows Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft. —AP
Members of the media view an image of Pluto on the screen taken a day earlier by the spacecraft New Horizons as it approached a flyby of Pluto, at NASA's Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. —Reuters
Members of the media view an image of Pluto on the screen taken a day earlier by the spacecraft New Horizons as it approached a flyby of Pluto, at NASA's Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. —Reuters

After an interplanetary voyage of nine years, and covering a distance of approximately 3 billion miles, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has buzzed past Pluto in a historic flyby.

At this historic moment, the spacecraft has taken the most detailed images of Pluto ever taken, which will enable the scientists to know more about the dwarf planet.

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in January 2006 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Center in Florida, US.

It was built under the NASA New Frontiers programme for exploring the planets of the solar system. Not only has it made the record of being first spacecraft to be so close to Pluto, but at the launch speed of 16.26 kilometres per second, it also holds the record of highest launch speed of any spacecraft ever.

At the speed of 58,536 kilometres per hour, the spacecraft flew by Pluto at 7:49 AM EDT and 4:50 PM Pakistan Standard Time. It was just 12,500 kilometres far from Pluto at its closest approach.

“I have to pinch myself. Look what we accomplished,” mission operations manager Alice Bowman said. “It is truly amazing that humankind can go out and explore these worlds and to see Pluto be revealed just before our eyes. It is just fantastic.

“New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern described what he called “a moment of celebration,” with the promise of a “16-month data waterfall” ahead that will help scientists write whole new textbooks about Pluto.

“We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, an endeavor started under President (John F.) Kennedy more than 50 years ago, continuing today under President (Barack) Obama,” Stern told reporters.

The 478 kilogramme spacecraft is primarily built by the Applied Physics Laboratory of John Hopkins University USA and the Southwest Research Institute.

Pluto is roughly at a distance of over 4 billion kilometres, and with a diameter of mere 2370 kilometres, it remained a hard target for even the most powerful Earth-based and orbiting telescopes to capture its detailed images.

The New Horizons mission is aimed at providing the scientists with more insights on Pluto’s geography, atmosphere, topography, and other characteristics.

Even the size of Pluto has been revisited, and known to be 4-5 kilometres greater than the previously known values, after the latest measurements by the spacecraft.

The spacecraft will now transmit images of Pluto and its 5 moons, which will help scientists in understanding more about the dwarf-planet.

New Horizons’ next mission is to explore the Kuiper Belt, a much-less known region of the solar system.

According to NASA, the spacecraft is currently flying into the unknown, and it will intimate the mission control about its well-being on Wednesday 15 July, and will provide the most detailed images which it took at the moment of its closest approach.

The spacecraft launched in 2006, the same year that Pluto was downgraded to “dwarf planet” status due to the celestial body's small size.

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto, and its seven scientific instruments aim to reveal up-close details of the surface, geology and atmosphere of Pluto and its five moons.

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