Approved in 2001 and launched in 2006, New Horizons is a NASA space probe sent to study Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Costing $650 million (USD) over 15 years, only 25 cents per person in the US per year, New Horizons is on a mission to learn about the formation of Pluto, the Kuiper Belt and the early Solar System. While in Pluto’s neighbourhood it will analyse the surface, atmosphere and interior of the dwarf planet and its moons.

Some of the Pluto questions New Horizons is looking to answer include:

·         What is the atmosphere made of?

·         What does the surface look like?

·         Are there large geological structures?

Currently, the most detailed images of Pluto are a blurry blend of orange, black and white. So this first ever visit to Pluto should return some clearer shots of this outlying astronomical object.

To get to Pluto, New Horizons swung by Jupiter and received a gravity boost. While near Jupiter the space probe camera LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) took some photos of Jupiter and a few of its moons, namely Io and its volcano Tvashtar, Ganymede, and Europa. All the images show with extreme clarity the makeup of the surface of these moons.

Study of the Kuiper Belt has been described by the National Academy of Sciences as the highest priority for Solar System exploration. Looking at these far-reaching features and getting a close up look at these unknown icy locations will tell us more about our Solar System and how it formed.

On (or close to) July 14, New Horizons will pass just 10,000km from Pluto. Just before this approach the LORRI camera will begin to map all sides of Pluto and Charon (Pluto’s largest moon). This mapping will be done twice a day to potentially catch snow or cryovolcanism (ice volcano!). Another instrument on board the space probe, Alice (ultraviolet imaging spectrometer) will measure the atmosphere looking at emissions of atmospheric molecules at occultation. Two other tools will sample the high atmosphere, another will search for dust and another will perform radio science.

Over the next few weeks and months expect to become reacquainted with Pluto as new images and discoveries are reported back from New Horizons. Soon we’ll know more than ever about this fascinating world and its neighbouring area.

Find out more at the  New Horizon mission page.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This image is of Jupiter’s little red spot, a newly reddened storm system. To put the picture in perspective, each pixel is equivalent to 15 kilometres.