Although mankind is not yet populating moon bases or terraforming Mars, a monumental event in the history of human space exploration is unfolding as New Horizons becomes the first space probe to reach Pluto and its five known moons after a decade-long, 3-billion-mile voyage.
Streaking past the dwarf planet at a speedy 31,000 mph early this morning, the piano-sized probe passed just 7,600 miles above Pluto's icy surface at its closest point and will capture invaluable images and data for its team of scientists, astronomers, engineers and astrophysicists. The real-time drive-by happened at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT, but due to the vast distances involved, (4-5 light-hours away) actual transmitted images will not be available for processing until later this evening.
New Horizons was launched back in January of 2006 and was put into hibernation mode for its epic journey, then was awoken last December as its rendezvous neared with the former ninth planet. In addition to being equipped with a host of scientific instruments, it also bears nine mission mementos, including a 2-inch capsule containing the ashes of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh; a 1991 U.S. postage stamp with the phrase "Pluto Not Yet Explored"; and two state quarters representing Florida, home of the launch site, and Maryland, headquarters for the spacecraft developers and flight control at Johns Hopkins University.
First found in 1930, Pluto was demoted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in August 2006 after failing to meet one of the key criteria for an official planetary designation, that of being a celestial body cleared of other bodies in its orbital neighborhood. New data and measurements may change the IAU's mind and restore Pluto to a certified planet and the ranking of a full-fledged "classical nine" member of our solar system.
This last stunning image of Pluto was taken yesterday at 4:00 p.m. EDT at a distance of 476,000 miles above the surface, just 16 hours before New Horizons' scheduled rendezvous.
NASA's live streaming coverage of the mission will begin at 8:30 p.m. EDT, and Blastr will be along for the ride, doing a live tweet of this amazing event. Communications containing the criitical message and possible first Plutonian images from New Horizons, signifying that the intrepid probe successfully carried out its instructions, will occur at approximately 9:07 p.m. EDT. Detailed images may not be released until Wednesday afternoon.
Join the Plutopalooza and tell us if you're on board this incredible odyssey to the outer reaches of our solar system.