BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Sixty million miles and closing in on Pluto.
Alex DeMetrick reports a spacecraft being controlled from here in Maryland is entering the pay-off stage of a journey that’s taken most of a decade.
New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever to leave Earth. By July, it will have traveled nine and a half years and three billion miles to reach Pluto and its main moon, Charon.
In February, it sent back its first picture from its telescopic camera. Last week, it sent another as it continues to close in on a world no one has ever seen up close.
“This is the first color image taken from the New Horizons spacecraft of Pluto and Charon,” said Dr. Andy Cheng, JHU Applied Physics Lab.
And it won’t be the last. In July, the spacecraft will fly by Pluto close enough to take detailed, high-resolution photos of its surface. It will send those back to the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Howard County. But right now, the early images are being used to keep New Horizons on course.
“We’re using it for optical navigation to correct the targeting of the spacecraft,” said Cheng.
The closer the spacecraft gets to Pluto, the closer it gets to potential risk. Besides Charon, there are at least four other mini moons.
“And they’re what we call debris generators,” said Dr. Hal Weaver.
A threat WJZ was briefed on this past winter.
“Our spacecraft is traveling so fast through Pluto’s system, even a one millimeter particle could blow a hole in the spacecraft,” Weaver said.
But it’s considered a small risk, given the reward.
“Oh, we’ll see wonderful things. We hope to see why—for instance, we know there are color variations. The colors, the brightness, have been changing over time. There’s maybe weather-related things going on there. Something strange,” Cheng said.
New Horizons will come closest to Pluto July 14 before flying on in search of other large objects even further out in space.