(MEDIA GENERAL/AP) – By NASA’s calculations, we’ve made it to Pluto. The moment of closest approach for the New Horizons spacecraft came at 7:49 a.m. EDT Tuesday. It culminated an unprecedented journey spanning 9½ years and 3 billion miles and will send back the first close-up images of Pluto.
Based on everything NASA knows, New Horizons was straight on course for the historic encounter, sweeping within 7,800 miles of Pluto at 31,000 mph. But official confirmation won’t come until Tuesday night, 13 nerve-racking hours later. That’s because NASA wants New Horizons taking pictures of Pluto, its jumbo moon Charon and its four little moons during this critical time, not gabbing to Earth. NASA marked the moment live on TV, broadcasting from flight operations in Maryland.
The United States is now the only nation to visit every single planet in the solar system. Pluto was No. 9 in the lineup when New Horizons departed Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2006 to shed light on the mysterious icy world, but was demoted seven months later to dwarf status.
NASA is hailing the mission as one of the biggest planetary unveiling in 25 years – since Voyager 2 flew past Neptune. The spacecraft is loaded with some of science’s most powerful instruments with hopes of gathering new information on the icy planet.
Johns Hopkins project scientist Hal Weaver told The Associated Press this mission, which launched in 2006, should give us the most in-depth information and photos of Pluto to date.
“The science team is just drooling over these pictures,” Weaver said. “We’re going to rewrite the book (on Pluto). This is it – this is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see it.
Weaver and his counterparts have waited for this moment a long time. Forced to line up precise coordinates for launch patterns, the spacecraft’s launch was delayed by a year, but now the nine-year journey is almost over. Soon, New Horizons will be ready to fulfill its mission.
Even in the science community, nine years is a pretty long wait. New Horizons launched January 19, 2006. Here are some things that have happened while New Horizons, which is traveling at more than 36,000 miles per hour, has made its long trek to Pluto.