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After 3 Billion Miles, Spacecraft Reaches Pluto


It’s cold and lifeless and smaller than Earth’s moon, it’s three billion miles away, but tiny Pluto is Page 1 news. As Jim Ash reports, NASA scientists are crossing their fingers ahead of Tuesday’s close encounter by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Close encounter is relative when it comes to planetary missions. After flying 36,000 mph for nine and a half years, the closest the spacecraft will come to Pluto is 8,000 miles.

But Cathy Olkin deputy project scientist, told NASA TV viewers in a live broadcast Monday, the distance won’t be a challenge for the ship’s seven sensors.   

“Now we’re near closest approach. Right here, we’re talking about data that if you could transport Central Park to Pluto, you could see the ponds in Central Park.”

There’s plenty scientists don’t know about the icy dwarf planet, including five moons that were discovered after launch.

Even though it takes four hours for a command traveling at the speed of light to reach the spacecraft, it should be nimble enough to avoid any obstacles, says Tallahassee Astronomical Society president Ken Kopczynski.

“So this should give astronomers and planetary scientists an opportunity to understand the solar system in its earliest formation. They think that this is left over debris that’s billions of years old. So it’s sort of like virgin territory.”

Pluto was discovered 85 years ago by astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, who died in 1997. In a sense he’ll get a front-row seat for the encounter. His ashes are onboard in a metal canister.