Today is the day that the New Horizons spacecraft will pass by Pluto.
It’s worth noting, that when Pluto was first discovered, we had no idea what it was really like and speculations ran wild. We still don’t know a lot about it, but we’re already discovering exciting things like the chaotic shapes and orbits of its moons, there’s nitrogen at its north pole, and it’s bigger than we thought.
All seven instruments aboard New Horizons will be actively collecting data during the flyby, but we won’t hear anything from the spacecraft about its encounter until just before 9:00 p.m. ET. This is because New Horizons can’t take and send data back simultaneously. So in order to learn as much as possible about Pluto and its moons, the spacecraft will focus solely on the flyby for a period of 24 hours (tonight through tomorrow night).
“Following closest approach, on Wednesday and Thursday, July 15 and 16, there will be a series of “First Look” downlinks containing a sampling of key science data. Another batch of data will arrive in the “Early High Priority” downlinks over the subsequent weekend, July 17-20. Then there will be a hiatus of 8 weeks before New Horizons turns to systematically downlinking all its data.” – Emily Lakdawalla
Within that 24 hour period, the images New Horizons captures of Pluto will go from having a resolution of 15 km/pixel to 100 m/pixel. So get ready to hold on to your hats when those images start coming in.
It will take months for all the data to come in, so this will be a gift that keeps on giving. And then it’s heading out, following the Voyagers into the rest of the universe.