Discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh this icy planet with a possible rocky interior will be visited at a distance of 12 500 km’s by the New Horizons spacecraft. This probe left Earth in 2006 and has travelled almost 5 billion km’s to get to its destination today.
Pluto is 2 350 km’s wide and the spacecraft will have a window period of 100 seconds to capture a mass of photographs and other science data before moving on into the Kuiper belt. Pluto’s five moons (Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra) will also be investigated.
An automated command sequence allows New Horizons to fly (what will hopefully be) a perfect path past Pluto. Timing is of the essence to get photos of the planet otherwise its cameras will shoot an empty sky. A ‘ keyhole’ in space (150 km X 100 km) has been set for this task and New Horizons must arrive within a set margin of 100 seconds!
There is a small concern that stray ice debris (travelling at 14 km/s) may hit the probe and render the spacecraft useless. The close flyby should occur at around 13h49 SA time today.