In just less than one month, the New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to the dwarf planet Pluto, 7,5-billion kilometres from Earth. New Horizons will also venture into the Kuiper Belt, a relic of solar system formation.
New Horizons launched on 19 January 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and is conducting a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons that started in early 2015.
The closest approach to Pluto will occur on 14 July 2015, after which it could head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine one or two of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least 1-billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.
Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).
Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs”. They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.
Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.
A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons also will explore – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.