Pluto may not be a full-fledged planet anymore, but that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in checking it out, even if it is quite a hike. It’s about 3 billion miles, one way, if you were wondering. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft set off for the dwarf planet back in 2006, and now that it’s 2014 we can finally say that next year, we’ll have our first close-up glimpse of the gatekeeper to our Solar System.
Last year, New Horizons’ telescopic camera LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) got its first image of Charon, Pluton’s largest moon. You can see it just to the upper left of Pluto, which is the bright spot in the middle. But don’t worry, the images will get better as the craft gets closer. When this was taken, New Horizons was still 550 million miles away. In the mean time check out the first images of Charon from 1978 when it was first discovered.
Next January, New Horizons will be close enough to Pluto to use LORRI to get clear images of the rocky, icy planet. LORRI will help the folks at mission control identify Pluto’s exact location by allowing them to identify the star fields in the background, and those images will guide the craft . By April, LORRI should be taking photos that make the Hubble jealous.
By July, New Horizons will be at its closest approach (7,750 miles), allowing for close-ups of the surface of Pluto. LORRI is capable of capturing objects as small as a football field, so who knows what we’ll see. “Humankind hasn’t had an experience like this—an encounter with a new planet—in a long time,” says Alan Stern, principal investigator of the mission. “Everything we see on Pluto will be a revelation.” Stern compares New Horizon’s flyby to the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars almost exactly 50 years ago. The spacecraft will certainly discover features and formations we never knew existed there, and Stern even thinks it’s possible that the spacecraft will could find additional moons—it has five known moons thus far—and/or rings, which would provide another opportunity to name them Vulcan.
New Horizons is the first probe to travel to Pluto and the fifth probe to get that far from the sun. Let’s hope news of Pluto’s demotion hasn’t spread too far.