After almost nine years on the road, New Horizons is in what NASA calls “Pluto-space”! Earlier today (July 7), the spacecraft Twitter account announced New Horizons is now 29.8 Earth-sun distances (astronomical units) away from the Sun, putting it within the boundaries of Pluto’s eccentric orbit — exciting, since Pluto is the primary science target.
“Didn’t get the word? We’re farther out than Pluto’s minimum distance to the Sun. We’re in ‘Pluto-space’ now!” tweeted the New Horizons account. We’ve included some of the best Pluto pictures below, to date, to celebrate.
And while many are focused on the Pluto encounter itself, NASA is already planning for what to do next for the spacecraft. In mid-June, we reported that the Hubble Space Telescope was doing a test search for icy Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons could possibly fly to next.
That test search was successful enough, with two objects found, that Hubble is now doing a full-blown investigation, according to an announcement last week. Hubble will begin that work in July and conclude observations in August. New Horizons is expected to fly by Pluto and its moons in July 2015.
Pluto’s surface as viewed from the Hubble Space Telescope in several pictures taken in 2002 and 2003. Though the telescope is a powerful tool, the dwarf planet is so small that it is difficult to resolve its surface. Astronomers noted a bright spot (180 degrees) with an unusual abundance of carbon monoxide frost. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its moons, most of which were discovered while New Horizons was in development and en route. Charon was found in 1978, Nix and Hydra in 2005, Kerberos in 2011 and Styx in 2012. The New Horizons mission launched in 2006. Picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA
Pluto and moons Charon, Hydra and Nix (left) compared to the dwarf planet Eris and its moon Dysnomia (right). This picture was taken before Kerberos and Styx were discovered in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Credit: International Astronomical Union
Pluto appears as a faint white dot (see arrow) in this image taken by New Horizons in September 2006, nine months after launch. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Pluto and Charon are visible in this 2013 image from New Horizons’ LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). It was the first image from the spacecraft showing Charon separated from Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
By Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.