Nasa counts down to nail-biter Pluto fly by

An artist’s impression of Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.
An artist’s impression of Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. PHOTO: REUTERS

MIAMI (AFP) - After a near decade-long journey, an unmanned Nasa spacecraft will make a close shave past Pluto on Tuesday, offering scientists a detailed glimpse of the dwarf planet's surface for the first time.

New Horizons is about the size of a baby grand piano and has been described as the fastest spaceship ever built, currently moving at a speed of 49,570 km per hour.

But there were some jitters on Monday as the US$700 million (S$950 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 from the spacecraft - the first spacecraft 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 won't 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 haven't 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 .

It will pass by Pluto at a distance of 12,500 km.

"We are flying into the unknown," Stern told reporters.

- New discoveries -

What is currently known about Pluto could probably fit on a few index cards, Stern has said. New Horizons' data will enable entire textbooks to be written about the mysterious celestial body.

Already, the pioneering NASA mission has confirmed the existence of a polar ice cap on Pluto, and found nitrogen escaping from Pluto's atmosphere.

Stern also said the dwarf planet appears slightly larger than previously thought, with a radius of 1,185 km.

Stunning visual features are coming into focus for the first time, including a light-coloured heart shape nestled near a dark spot nicknamed "The Whale."

And more detail is expected in the days to come, according to deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin.

"Right now, we are taking data that if you could transport (New York's) Central Park to Pluto you would be able to identify the ponds in Central Park, that is the kind of resolution we will be getting," she said.

"We are going to be making stereo maps so that we can see how tall the mountains are and how low the valleys are," Olkin added.

- Fossil of solar system -

Next, scientists will watch the sun rise and set behind Pluto, use New Horizons' seven instruments to create a full picture of Pluto and its five moons, and study the dust in the outer solar system and the atmosphere around Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

Learning more about Pluto has captured the public's attention because it speaks to the origins of the Earth and the larger questions of whether life could exist elsewhere, according to Nasa's John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of Nasa's science mission directorate.

"The Pluto system is a fossil remnant of the beginnings of our solar system," Grunsfeld said.

"We are going to learn about where we are coming from," he said.

"It is opening up a new realm of exploration."