From a NASA press release: After a decade-long journey through our solar system, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday, July 14, about 7,750 miles above the surface — roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India – making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.
The Pluto story began only a generation ago when young Clyde Tombaugh was tasked to look for Planet X, theorized to exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. He discovered a faint point of light that we now see as a complex and fascinating world. New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system. New Horizons’ almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 60-by-90 kilometer window in space – the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball. Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched – hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could have incapacitated the spacecraft.
Meanwhile, on June 30 in New Zealand, author Jay M. Pasachoff and his team of scientists and students from Williams College, M.I.T. and Lowell Observatory successfully observed a two-minute occultation of Pluto, where the dwarf planet’s 1,500-mile-wide silhouette passed between Earth and a star trillions of miles away in precise line with the Mount John Observatory on New Zealand’s South Island. Read more details via JMP’s opinion piece in the NY Times, below.
Links: NASA press release; image gallery via the NY Times; Jay M. Pasachoff’s article in NY Times; JMP’s scientific results from his occultation observations; coverage of JMP’s NZ occultation trip via S&T and planethunters.org.