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New Horizons mission to Pluto

New Horizons approaches PlutoNew Horizons approaches Pluto Nine years after it left Earth, NASA’s New Horizons space probe became, on Tuesday 14th July 2015, the first spacecraft to reach Pluto. In August 2006, soon after the probe's launched, Pluto's status as a planet had been downgraded to that of "dwarf planet", the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, a region of the outer Solar System where millions of tiny icy worlds orbit. Coming within 12,500 kilometres (7800 miles) of Pluto, New Horizons took detailed images of the icy world as it zoomed past at 14 kilometres per second (30,000 mph). Because Pluto is so distant, radio signals from the space probe took more than four hours to reach mission controllers on Earth. The first signals arrived on the morning of Wednesday 15th July 2015. Having completed its flyby of Pluto, New Horizons' course was then set by mission controllers for a flyby of another Kuiper Belt object, Ultima Thule, which took place on 1st January 2019.

New Horizons' trajectory (KBOs = Kuiper Belt Objects)New Horizons' trajectory (KBOs = Kuiper Belt Objects)

Journey to Pluto

New Horizons was launched on 19th January 2006, with a speed of 16.26 kilometres per second (36,373 mph), bound for Pluto and beyond. It was the fastest man-made object ever to be launched from Earth. The high escape velocity was necessary to give the probe the speed it needed to reach Pluto in just nine years and eventually to escape the Solar System altogether.

New Horizons travelled first to Jupiter. Its flyby of the giant planet in February 2007 gave it a gravity assist to increase its speed still further. For most of the rest of its voyage was spent in hibernation mode—it was effectively "sleeping"— to preserve its on-board systems. On 6th December 2014, New Horizons was brought back online for its encounter with Pluto. On 14th January 2015, after a 5-billion-kilometre (3-billion-mile) journey, the spacecraft began its approach to the dwarf planet.

Pluto, taken by New Horizons' cameras on 14th JulyPluto, taken by New Horizons' cameras on 14th July

Pluto's surface

The New Horizons space probe was the first spacecraft ever to reach Pluto.

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