Tomorrow NASA's New Horizon probe is going to fly within 7,750 miles of the mysterious (because we've never seen it) icy dwarf planet known as Pluto. That may not seem like a huge deal, but there are reasons that NASA scientists and regular old space geeks are giddy about what we're about to see. To prepare for the big day, here's some stuff we thought you should know:
5. We're finally going to see Pluto. Yep, this is it, the last planet (or dwarf planet for those who want to nitpick) is the last planet in our traditional solar system (the ones everyone has to memorize in school) that we haven't explored. That will change tomorrow when New Horizon starts transmitting images back to NASA (the process takes hours) but then we're finally going to see what Pluto looks like up close and personal. Assuming everything goes right (and there's a little cause for concern after a glitch shut down New Horizon's computer on July 4) NASA will be collecting a ton of information about this soon-to-be-less-mysterious planet soon. As the nuclear-powered probe flies by tomorrow it will collect data that will keep NASA scientists busy for the next 16 months. As it is we already have the first photos where Pluto shows up as more than a tiny dot in the sky, so who knows what kind of information we'll have once New Horizon is finished up with its Pluto-centric close encounter. That's right, what was once a pixelated blob will be a complex planet by the time this thing is done. It's pretty nifty.
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4. New Horizon had to go a long, long way to get Pluto. As in more than three billion miles. not only did New Horizon have to travel more than 3 billion miles to reach Pluto, the spacecraft also had to move at speeds between 37,000 mph and 51,000 mph to be in exactly the right place at the right time to complete NASA's mission, and somehow the probe has done it. This is also the farthest we've ever been into our solar system.
3. There's fun stuff hidden on the probe itself. Well, maybe "fun" isn't strictly the operative word, but New Horizon had a few extra things tucked into it before it lifted off in 2006. For one thing there's part of an actual person on board: Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 and now his ashes are on the probe as it hovers tantalizingly close to the actual planet itself. There's also a CD-Rom on board with the names of more than 400,000 people on it, a couple of U.S. flags, a couple of quarters, and, last but definitely not least, a 1991 U.S. stamp with an artist's rendering of Pluto that says "Pluto: Not Yet Explored". Based on that one, it's clear these scientists either have a great sense of humor or a fairly long memory.
2. Even Stephen Hawking is impressed. Yep, the famed theoretical physicist talked about New Horizon's mission to Pluto back in April. He called it "momentous," something that was considered the stuff of science fiction when he was a kid. This is the guy who came up with theories (and more theories and revised theories of those theories) of everything from black holes to, well, everything. When he is impressed, it's probably a rather notable moment.
1. 50 years ago tomorrow we got the first images of another planet from deep space, and now we've seen them all. Well, at least the ones in our own solar system at least. During tomorrow's flyby New Horizon will be snapping the best photos we're likely to get for the foreseeable future of the last previously unexplored planet in our solar system. Way back on November 28, 1964 Mariner IV, a state -of-the-art craft for its time (with less computer capability than an old flip phone) launched and set off to give us our first glimpse of another planet via spacecraft. It performed a flyby of Mars on July 14 and 15 1965. Back then we hadn't yet been to the moon and we were only getting our first shadowy glimpse of the planet closest to Earth. Now we're seeing the very last one. It's an impressive moment, the end of exploring our own little solar system and maybe — assuming the government or somebody will pony up the money to fund this stuff — it's the beginning of peering out past our solar system to an even wider array of worlds. We've come a long way from the days when Mariner IV was first launched.