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Everything you need to know about New Horizon’s Pluto trip

Remember Pluto?

Discovered in 1930, it used to be a planet before being downgraded to "dwarf planet" status in 2006 because some bastards redefined what it took to be a planet. Since then, this mass of frozen nitrogen has been sulking about an average 7.5 billion kilometres away, playing orbital swapsies with Neptune.

But for part of 14 July, Pluto had a new best friend: NASA's New Horizons probe. 

From pictures to data, here's everything you need to know about this long-range flyby.

A long trip

New Horizons has taken a long time getting to Pluto - launching from Earth on 19 January 2006. In February 2007 it got intimate with Jupiter, using the gaseous giant's gravitational pull to sling shot further out into the solar system, en route to Pluto.

It's hard to put into perspective just what a huge undertaking this mission is, but to get the best shots of Pluto and its moons, New Horizons has a window of between 100 to 150 kilometres (after a journey of five billion kilometres, that's like threading the proverbial needle), with a required time frame of 100 seconds. 

Expect this to form the basis of the hardest-ever maths exam question in years to come.

Incredible pictures

One of the coolest aspects of the approach to Pluto has been the increasingly detailed pictures that New Horizons has been beaming back - but the real money shots aren't going to arrive until 00:53 GMT on 15 July. New Horizons was successful in its close range flyby of Pluto, but due to a required shift in the angle of the probe, we have to wait before the images can be beamed back.

These will show the surface of Pluto in more detail than ever before - head to the gallery to see the latest shots (we'll update them as and when they arrive - they've got five billion kilometres to travel).

A lot of science stuff

It's not just pictures that the New Horizons probe is after - this is the list of sensors and gadgets strapped to this deep space voyager and an idea of what they'll be looking for:

• Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer; provides color, composition and thermal maps.
• Alice: Ultraviolet imaging spectrometer; analyzes composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere and looks for atmospheres around Charon and Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs).
• REX (Radio Science EXperiment): Measures atmospheric composition and temperature; passive radiometer.
• LORRI (LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager): Telescopic camera; obtains encounter data at long distances, maps Pluto’s far side and provides high resolution geologic data.
• SWAP (Solar Wind Around Pluto): Solar wind and plasma spectrometer; measures atmospheric “escape rate” and observes Pluto’s interaction with solar wind.
• PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation): Energetic particle spectrometer; measures the composition and density of plasma (ions) escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere.
• VBSDC (Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter): Built and operated by students at University of Colorado; measures the space dust peppering New Horizons during its voyage across the solar system.

Its continuing mission...

New Horizons isn't about to turn tail and head home after its Pluto flyby. Part of NASA's solar system reconnaissance, should the mission prove successful it will mean the US are the first country to reach every planet with a space probe (they'll be looking to stick a flag on them all next), before journeying farther into the Kuiper Belt (the region beyond Pluto and Neptune's orbit) to examine one or two of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region. 

After that? It'll be left to drift into the big inky black, until it encounters another solid object and falls apart, or is intercepted by an alien race and perceived to be a message of hostile intent, sparking the beginnings of an intergalactic war. Hopefully the former.

  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip

    Ready for my close up

    The final image of Pluto before New Horizons readied itself for its flyby. The angle of this final approach means that we won't be getting any communication from New Horizons until just after midnight on 15 July. The photo shows off the dwarf planet's mysterious "heart" - an area of pale dust and ice seen toward the lower half of this image.

  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip 1

    Mooning about

    The first high-resolution image of Pluto's largest moon, Charon. The lack of craters on the moon's surface leads NASA's scientists to believe that its current surface may have only been formed quite recently.

  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip 2

    Young mountains

    One of the first high-quality images sent back from New Horizons' flyby, this image shows a range of mountains rising some 3,500 metres above the surface of the icy body of the dwarf planet - likely formed no more than 100 million years ago. Which, in space terms, is quite young.

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  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip 3

    Hail Hydra

    The outermost moon of Pluto still holds many secrets, but this new, blurry image has helped confirm a number of theories - namely its shape, and that it's covered in water ice.

  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip 4

    A sense of scale

    NASA's graphical representation of the size of Pluto (2,370 km in diameter) and its largest moon Charon (1,208 km in diameter), compared to our own watery Earth. 

  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip 5

    Ready for launch

    An image of New Horizons before it set off on its journey back in 2006.

  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip 6

    Dynamic duo

    An image of Pluto (on the right) and its moon Charon when New Horizons was six million kilometers away from its flyby target.

  • Everything you need to know about New Horizon's Pluto trip 7

    We have flyby

    Part of the NASA team celebrate the sharpest image of Pluto ever seen. More images to follow.

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