DENVER – In a galaxy far, far away ... there's an unmanned probe with a connection to Boulder traveling at nearly a million miles a day heading towards Pluto. One year from July 14, it will reach its destination.
Even with that distance, it's the closest a probe will have ever come from reaching Pluto. Up until then, the best images the world has ever seen of Pluto come from the Hubble telescope, which photographed it from about a billion miles away.
"We are right at the doorstep of achieving our goal at the far end of the solar system of exploring Pluto," New Horizons' principal investigator Alan Stern said.
Stern is based out of Colorado and works for Boulder-based Southwest Research Institute. The institute helped build a portion of the spacecraft.
Aside from Southwest, Lockheed Martin also assisted in building instruments for the craft. Stern says the launch vehicle was built in part at Lockheed Martin.
"There were jobs down in Jefferson County that were created with the giant atlas launch vehicle," Stern said.
The probe left Earth in 2006. The journey itself will cover three billion miles. Once it reaches Pluto, it will only have a few days to study the planet since the probe is moving at a fast speed.
To put it in perspective, New Horizons is traveling so fast, Stern says it's like traveling between New York City and Los Angeles in two-and-a-half minutes.
While New Horizons is an unmanned mission, the probe itself is carrying high-tech photography equipment to capture as many images of the icy dwarf planet as it possibly can.
The size of the probe is about the size of a grand piano.
"This is a very advanced, very small spacecraft. It has a lot more capability than the earlier pioneers and voyagers," Stern said.
Once its Pluto mission is complete, New Horizons will continue to venture out into deep space for as long as it possibly can. Stern says it will have enough power to last until 2040, and researchers will be able to communicate with it through the 2020s.
Stern says there are a few items in the spacecraft, including a few American flags, some coins, as well as the ashes of the man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh.
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