Miami (AFP) – An unmanned NASA spacecraft will reveal details of Pluto’s surface for the first time Tuesday, as it speeds by the dwarf planet after a near decade-long journey.
New Horizons is about the size of a baby grand piano and has been described as the fastest spaceship ever built. It is currently moving at a speed of 30,800 miles (49,570 kilometers) per hour.
But there were some jitters Monday as the $700 million spacecraft sped toward the last undiscovered frontier in the solar system.
According to principal investigator Alan Stern, there is a one in 10,000 chance that the spacecraft could be lost in a collision with debris around Pluto, long considered the farthest planet from the Sun until it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.
The closest approach is set for Tuesday at 7:49 am (1149 GMT). NASA television coverage begins at 7:30 am.
But it will be hours before scientists hear back from the spacecraft — the first to visit an unexplored planet since the NASA Voyager missions launched in the 1970s — because New Horizons will be busy snapping pictures and collecting data.
It is supposed to send a “phone home” signal to Earth at 4:20 pm (2020 GMT), but that will take nearly five hours to reach scientists.
So NASA will not announce until about 13 hours after the flyby, at 9:02 pm (0102 GMT Wednesday), whether or not the spacecraft survived the high-speed encounter.
“While I don’t lose sleep over this, the fact is, tomorrow evening is going to be a little bit of drama,” said Stern on Monday.
“Until we pass that point tomorrow evening we won’t really know with certainty that we cleared the system and that there were no debris strikes.”
– Shooting gallery –
Stern said experts have searched for potential debris and have not found any of concern.
But spaceflight is a risky business, and Stern described the Kuiper Belt, where Pluto resides on the edge of the solar system, as “more or less a shooting gallery, with lots of small primordial comets and other things much smaller than Pluto.”
Never before has a spacecraft ventured into the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons has been on its way there for more than nine years — a journey of some three billion miles.
It will pass by Pluto at a distance of 7,767 miles (12,500 kilometers).
“We are flying into the unknown,” Stern told reporters.