The New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on Pluto, with its closest approach scheduled for July 14, as depicted in this artist's concept. The probe is scanning Pluto, its largest moon, Charon (shown in the background), and some of its smaller moons. It's also looking for additional moons and for rings. [NASA/JHUAPL]
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HAL WEAVER: We’re going to be transforming Pluto from this pixelated thing...into a completely new world, with a complexity and a diversity that we can’t even imagine.
Hal Weaver is one of the top scientists with New Horizons, the first mission to Pluto. It’s scheduled to sweep through the Pluto system on Tuesday. It’ll pass less than 8,000 miles from Pluto itself, allowing its cameras to see features just a few hundred feet across.
But New Horizons will do much more than take pictures.
WEAVER: We’ll be mapping Pluto and all five of its known satellites, mapping surface temperatures, making composition maps of Pluto, Charon, and Nix. We’ll be studying in detail Pluto’s atmosphere, measuring the temperature profile in the atmosphere, the composition, and also measuring the escape rate. Pluto does have some of its atmosphere just basically flying off, and we’ll measure exactly how much there is flying off.
Measurements of Pluto’s gravitational and magnetic fields should reveal details about its interior. Scientists expect to find that Pluto is built something like Earth, with denser materials in the middle and lighter ones at the surface.
We won’t see any of New Horizons’ closest pictures until Wednesday, when the craft can turn its main antenna toward Earth. And it’s so far away that it’ll take more than a year for it to transmit all its observations back to Earth — completing the transformation of Pluto from a pinpoint of light to a world.
More about New Horizons tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015