NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, now on its way for a rendezvous with Pluto has sent a new image of the planet. The craft was more than 126 million miles from the planet when it began taking images. Because of the distance of the craft from Pluto the image shows the planet and its moon, Charon, as two small spots.
Over the next few months, the New Horizons spacecraft will snap more images as it races toward the solar system’s farthest planet at speeds of about 31,0000 mph.
The craft has covered more than 3 million miles since it was launched on January 19, 2006. The journey has taken it past each planets orbit from Mars to Neptune in record time. During the first stage of its encounter with Pluto it will continue to snap pictures and measure the dust, energetic particle, and solar wind to determine the characteristics of the space environment around Pluto. Some believe that the outer end of the solar system potentially includes thousands of icy, rocky, small planets.
The images will help to determine the current estimated distance the craft is from Pluto. Because of the distance the New Horizons is from the dwarf planet, Pluto and its moons will resemble little more than bright dots until May. Mission navigators will use the images to perform course-correction maneuvers to aim the craft toward its target. NASA expects that the first maneuver correction could take place in March.
The craft woke up from a hibernation period in December after traveling more than 3 million miles. It has sent about two-thirds of its journey in hibernation and has had 18 separate hibernation periods from mid-2007 to late 2014. Hibernations have ranged from 36 days to 202 days in length. Hibernations were used to limit wear and tear on the spacecraft’s components and reduce the chance of system failures.
The New Horizons features a seven-instrument science payload that includes advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers, and a space-dust detector. The vehicle actually started its scrutiny of the Pluto system on January 15.
The spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto will occur on July 14. However, by mid-May we should be getting better images of Pluto than what the Hubble Space Telescope has been able to offer.