New Horizons, the Little Spacecraft that Could, passed Pluto at a distance of about 7,500 miles about an hour ago.

Conceived in 1990, the New Horizons project is a culmination of many hours of labor and love. Including components designed by many companies including Ball Aerospace, APL, Southwest Research Institute and The University of Colorado Boulder, it was launched from Cape Canaveral after a number of setbacks and reschedules on January 19, 2006.

“NewHorizons Rocket Bly”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia -

Leaving Earth’s orbit is no easy task, but this little explorer set a record. Strapped to an Atlas V 551 with five solid boosters and a third stage - the first of its kind - it left this blue planet with a speed of 36,373 MPH. That’s the fastest we’ve ever recorded an object leaving this place!

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Its journey through the Solar System has been, thankfully, rather uneventful. It has checked in at regular intervals to ensure the systems are intact and undamaged but has otherwise had a nice, quiet 9 year flight. It spent some time with Mars on April 7, 2006 and received a little push from Jupiter (thanks, guy!) and got some neat photos between January and June of 2007.

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

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It also spent some time checking out the Jovian moons. Emphasis was put on Jupiter’s innermost Galilean moon, Io, whose active volcanoes shoot out tons of material into Jupiter’s magnetosphere, and further. Out of eleven observed eruptions, three were seen for the first time. That of Tvashtar reached an altitude of up to 330 kilometers. The event gave scientists an unprecedented look into the structure and motion of the rising plume and its subsequent fall back to the surface. Infrared signatures of a further 36 volcanoes were noticed. Callisto’s surface was analyzed with LEISA, revealing how lighting and viewing conditions affect infrared spectrum readings of its surface water ice.

Surface of Io - Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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After passing Jupiter, New Horizons went into hibernation. It would still check in from time to time but nothing major would occur until it neared the Kuiper belt - its primary destination. Between July 2013 and December 2014, nearing its target, New Horizons would capture some observations and determine that Pluto and Charon are separate objects. In January 2015, the spacecraft began to take more photographs and data in preparation for its pass.

Everything was going according to plan until July 4, 2015. A software glitch in the autopilot system caused New Horizons to go into safe mode. The anomaly was corrected quickly though three days worth of data was not recovered. Although it seems like a lot, those three days totaled about 1% of captures; an acceptable loss. As New Horizons approached Pluto, more shots were taken and new images created. Take a look at some of the latest composites showing the surface of the dwarf planet in a resolution never seen before:

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

Today at approximately 5:49:57, New Horizons passed Pluto at a distance of about 7,500 miles. We won’t see any pictures or data from that for a while - a round-trip command takes about nine hours at this time - but you can read more about this adventure, the teams that made this dream come true, and all the data you could possibly want by visiting the mission page here.

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As someone who worked with the Ralph team, I could not be more exited and proud to see this craft make it three billion miles without major fault. New Horizons will be providing us with the clearest pictures and cleanest data we’ve ever had on our little planet/nonplanet in mere hours!