Space scientists are expecting big news from the far reaches of the solar system this weekend, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft makes its closest approach to Pluto.
New Horizons will glide past the dwarf planet at a distance of 7,750 miles Tuesday morning, after a nine-year, 3 billion-mile journey.
It is the first unmanned space traveler to visit Pluto, which was still classified as a true planet when New Horizons was launched in 2006.
Mark Sykes, CEO of the Tucson-based Planetary Sciences Institute, said Pluto’s demotion did not dampen anticipation for this historic encounter.
“It’s because we’re driven by science,” commented Sykes. “There are some astronomers with the International Astronomical Union who don’t think it’s a planet because they’re looking at it from a standpoint of how it affects other objects around it.”
Sykes says instead, planetary scientists like himself focus on similarities between Pluto and planets like Mars and the Earth.
New Horizons gave scientists a scare when its on-board systems went into a temporary “safe mode” last week. Mission planners said the problem happened because they gave the spacecraft too many commands to be executed at once. Programmers returned New Horizons to normal and it began transmitting data and daily photographs on Wednesday.