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The Next Phase

April 6, 2015

2015 has already been a big year for little solar system objects. The Rosetta spacecraft has been orbiting a comet, for example, providing extraordinary views from just a few miles away. And the Dawn spacecraft has entered orbit around Ceres, the largest member of the asteroid belt.

And beginning this week, a third spacecraft is ramping up its observations of yet another solar system little guy: Pluto.

New Horizons has been snapping pictures of Pluto since early January. It’s been so far away, though, that Pluto and its biggest moon appear as little more than tiny blobs of light.

But the craft is drawing almost a million miles closer to the Pluto system every day, so the view is getting better. So New Horizons is beginning the second phase of its observations. It’ll soon start taking pictures with its color cameras. And by about a month from now, those images will offer a sharper view than anything snapped by Hubble Space Telescope, which has provided the best views of Pluto so far.

This phase of the encounter is scheduled to last until late June, when New Horizons will be just three weeks away from Pluto. At that point, it’ll switch on most of its instruments and start studying Pluto and its four known moons in great detail. New Horizons will speed by Pluto on July 14th — providing what should be some big views of a small world on the edge of the solar system.

Tomorrow: remaking the beautiful rings of Saturn.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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