At last. The day is here. Today, for the first time in human history, we will fly past Pluto, and its system of moons. It has been almost 9 and a half years. If you are keeping track, that’s 3,463 days or almost 8,3112 hours. In brief, it has been a long, long wait for us. For the last decade, this minute spacecraft has been making its way across our solar system, travelling towards the icy boundaries of our Sun’s range of influence, and it will lastly reach its target today (July 14th, 2015) at 7:50 am EST (1:50 pm CEST). Though, unluckily, the occasion won’t be all glitz and glam, nor will there be a courageous Eureka! Moment. We still have a little bit of waiting to do. After nearly nine years and three billion miles, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will zip past Pluto and its five moons this morning.
The Pluto system is tilted on its side, like a target facing the sun. New Horizons does not have sufficient fuel to go into orbit around Pluto, so will have only one chance to look at the dwarf planet. By 6:30 a.m. Eastern time, New Horizons will be 40,000 miles from Pluto and closing at 30,800 miles an hour. New Horizons will cross the plane of the Pluto system around 7:38 a.m., near the orbit of Charon to reduce the chance of hitting any debris. New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto at 7:49 a.m., passing within 7,800 miles of the dwarf planet. New Horizons will watch the sun set and rise behind Pluto in a brief eclipse around8:51 a.m., by means of sunlight and radio signals from Earth to inspect Pluto’s atmosphere.
The spacecraft will pass through the shadow of Charon around 10:18 a.m. as it hunts for an atmosphere around the moon. Verification that New Horizons survived the flyby is not projected until after 9:00 p.m., in part because signals from Pluto take four and a half hours to reach Earth. So all the best New Horizons.