Humans have sent spacecraft to all of the planets and several asteroid and comets, but we have never seen the dwarf planet Pluto up close. But that will change soon. NASA’s New Horizons Pluto mission is making the long journey to the dwarf planet, and will encounter it on July 14, 2015.
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When it finally arrives at Pluto in 2015, the spacecraft will make a very fast flyby, passing near Pluto and its moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra. Unfortunately, New Horizons will be traveling too fast to be able to slow down and go into orbit around Pluto.
Planetary scientists are hoping to get the first close up pictures of Pluto, and see features across its surface. There are several outstanding mysteries that New Horizons will help to solve about Pluto. For example, what is the nature of its atmosphere, and will it disappear soon? Does Pluto’s moon Charon have ice geysers, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus?
New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft every launched, reaching a velocity of 16.5 km/s launch velocity. It has already passed one asteroid, and made a close flyby of Jupiter in early 2007, picking up a much-needed gravity assisted speed boost.
When New Horizons completes its Pluto flyby, NASA will probably attempt one or more flybys of other objects in the Kuiper Belt, before heading out into the outer Solar System, like the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft.
The total cost of the mission is about $650 million over 15 years.