Fantastic Faraway Flyby

If you’re near a TV set or computer tonight, you might want to check out Pluto.  The NASA spacecraft New Horizons will be zooming by and sending back photographs and data that will give us our first good look at the “dwarf planet” at the edge of our solar system.

The New Horizons effort is pretty cool.  Nine years ago the spacecraft, which is about the size of a piano, was launched, and since then it has traveled 2.9 billion miles on its journey.  Today New Horizons is closing in on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, traveling at a rate of almost 31,000 miles per hour, snapping pictures and using its instruments to gather other data.  Already it has taken the first clear picture of Pluto and Charon, with a focus vastly superior to the indistinct blobs produced by the Hubble space telescope.  Eventually it will get to within 7,600 miles of Pluto’s surface.

With this Pluto flyby, human spacecraft have now visited every planet in our solar system.  We should celebrate that, and also celebrate this:  the New Horizons project is one of the most technologically challenging efforts NASA has ever undertaken.  The spacecraft won’t be able to orbit Pluto, it will approach it edge on and then fly by.  That means that New Horizons, which is traveling on an automated control path, has to hit a “keyhole” in space that’s about 60 miles by 90 miles — a remarkably precise target for a probe that is billions of miles away.  If it misses, we’ll just get pictures of empty space.

Starting at about 8 p.m. tonight, engineering data will tell us whether New Horizon threaded the needle.  You can access the NASA live feed here.

Some days, science and technology can be pretty awesome.  This is one of those days.

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