On the 14 July 2015 the New Horizons probe successfully completed its closest approach flyby of Pluto.
Visit to Pluto
Image Credit: NASA
Launched in January 2006, New Horizons is the first mission to visit the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt. Helped by a Jupiter gravity assist the New Horizons probe made its way to visit the most famous of dwarf planets. For around five months the spacecraft will investigate the Pluto system but the closest view the probe happened during its closest approach flyby on the 14 July.
With a number of different scientific instruments on board, New Horizons will help us find out more about the surface, geology, interior and atmosphere of Pluto and some of its moons. Due to the distance New Horizons has had to travel, its flyby of Pluto had to be brief due to its speed. To make sure the probe could collect as much data as possible it spent a 21 hour period completely dedicated to taking data. This meant that during the time the probe could not communicate with mission controllers down on the ground. Here on Earth scientists had to wait nervously for a set of messaged to be delivered to confirm that the spacecraft was still okay.
Luckily all went to plan and we now have the most detailed images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, to date. Inital analysis of the data shows that both Pluto and Charon have complex surfaces. Scientists will be studying the data to look for surface features and theories of how they got there. Data so far shows that Pluto has complex surface properties with a variety of different regions of composition on the surface.
Now that New Horizons has completed its Pluto flyby it will now continue on to its extended mission. Adventuring further into the Kuiper belt the probe will go on to study one or two of the icy snowballs called comets that live out in our solar system. Understanding the object in the far regions of our solar system like Pluto, comets and other dwarf planets could help us unlock the understandings of how the solar system first formed.