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3 days until NASA space probe New Horizons reaches Pluto

For the past nine-and-a-half years, space probe New Horizons has been travelling on a three-million mile voyage to the dwarf planet, Pluto. Only three days and just over two million miles remain before the probe will fly past and begin returning to Earth with the greatest photos and data we’ve ever been able to collect from our distant beloved neighbor.

The New Horizons mission began in 2001 as the first part of NASA’s New Frontier program that aims to further explore our own solar system. The probe was launched in 2006, reaching an escape velocity of roughly 36,000 mph when leaving Earth, and gained another 9,000 mph thanks to some help from Jupiter’s “gravity assist,” acting as a slingshot, launching it towards the dwarf planet in an effort to arrive before the Plutonian winter, when Pluto’s atmosphere is believed to freeze, causing it to collapse.

Since the mission began, we have discovered four new moons of Pluto; Hydra and Nix, both discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005, Kerberos, discovered in 2011, and Styx, discovered as recent as 2012. Additional discoveries of the mission hope to include learning more about the Plutonian atmosphere and composition, as well as the composition of its first discovered moon, Charon (1978). New Horizons is a flyby mission, meaning that the probe will pass by the dwarf planet at a distance of about 7,800 miles. This is more than close enough for the LORRI and Ralph cameras to transmit the finest images of the Plutonian system ever taken.

Back when the New Horizons mission began, Pluto was still considered among one of the other eight planets of our solar system. Since then, the International Astronomical Union officially denounced its planetary status after the discovery of numerous other objects of comparable size and composition found in the Kuiper Belt. The denouncement was based on Pluto’s inability to “clear its neighborhood,” or to clear its surroundings of objects of comparable size (not including its moons), one of the three primary criteria the IAU created to classify a planet.

After the flyby, New Horizons will continue on into the Kuiper Belt as the team continues to search for more objects to explore on the probes journey through the solar system. The team has, headed by Alan Stern, has planned to continue communication with New Horizons at least through 2026, coincidently, the same year Elon Musk hopes to get man to Mars. The culmination of nine-and-a-half years of dedication is about to pay off.

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