Image: Artist’s rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto. Credit: JHUAPL/SwRI

Scientists are anticipating the rendezvous of NASA’s New Horizons satellite with Pluto to return the first up-close imagery and scientific data ever relayed from the distant dwarf planet.

The probe, which has travelled over 9 years to reach Pluto, and broke the record for fastest flying satellite at launch to do so, is expected to make contact on July 14, 2015.  But New Horizons will be going much too fast (roughly 13km/s) to catch orbit around Pluto’s small body of gravity, and will have to capture its data in a blazing flyby with its seven on-board instruments.  But scientists don’t anticipate being disappointed.

“This is a return to the kind of space exploration in the 60s and 70s when everything was completely new – the first mission to Venus, the first mission to Mars, the first mission to everywhere,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator.  “People talk about re-writing the textbook. Well, this is a case where we won’t re-write it; we’re going to write that textbook for the first time.  It’s that new.”

Very little is known about the icy ball once thought to be a planet.  At a distance of about 5 billion kilometers from Earth, it’s not exactly an easy target to observe.  Scientists know it has five moons – four of which were only discovered after New Horizons was set for launch.  The largest, and previously known moon is called Charon.  It is theorized that these moons are remaining debris from a celestial collision – similar to Earth’s.

Although New Horizons will make contact this summer, the downlink time take about 16 months for a full set of data.  With a 15-watt transmitter, the probe sends data at the speed of dial-up internet over an unthinkable distance.

NASA’s groundbreaking probe will also set the stage for deep-space observation over the next decade, as colossal telescopes in the works become operational and set their sights on the outer lying Kuiper Belt – a region beyond Pluto that is home to some 70,000 icey objects orbiting the Solar System.  The probe is also serving as a scout for these anticipated astronomical endeavors.