NASA’s New Horizons probe is just about to make history as it comes within a mere 6,000 miles of Pluto. However, instead of landing or orbiting our last planet in the solar system, NASA has programed the probe to keep heading straight into the endless expanse of space.
Travelling at about 31,000 miles per hour, NASA’s probe is currently whizzing 6,000 miles above Pluto’s icy terrain. It is certainly uncharted territory, and NASA isn’t truly ready for what will be discovered by the probe, said New Horizons Principal Investigator, Alan Stern.
“We can’t predict what the discoveries will be and that’s the best part. This is real exploration and nothing’s been done, anything like this really since the 1980s and the voyager program. It’s been a long time.”
Launched over nine years ago, the New Horizons probe will spend just over eight to ten hours above the surface of Pluto. But, owing to its cameras, it is expected to beam back several dozen photographs and information of the planet’s surface. Though the mission was primarily envisaged to help scientists better understand how Pluto and its moons fit in with the rest of the planets in our solar system, New Horizons won’t be settling on the planet and neither will it be sending a rover to closely explore its surface.
Instead, NASA is sending the probe deep into the Kuiper Belt, which lies beyond Pluto. Though powerful telescopes have indicated that this region is filled with hundreds of small and essentially non-threatening icy objects, New Horizons will have to safely maneuver between them if it intends to go as far as its fuel allows. NASA claims its power source should allow it continue into deep space for as many as 20 more years. The probe has already traveled 3 billion miles over 9 and a half years to reach Pluto, reported the Christian Science Monitor.
Unless it encounters some unforeseen troubles or malfunctions, New Horizons should offer never-before-seen images of uncharted space and beyond. Fortunately, NASA engineers have built in multiple safeguards to allow the probe to take decisions and fly on its own if necessary. Moreover, an additional protocol recently managed to jump-start communications with the base.
The final images of Pluto are expected to be received on July 15. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to to see the far side when it zooms through the Pluto system during its highly anticipated flyby on Tuesday morning, lamented the New Horizons team monitoring the probe.
The above photo is “the last, best look that anyone will have of Pluto’s far side for decades to come,” concluded Stern.
[Image Credit: Getty Images, NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI via AP]