On January 19, 2006, NASA launched a robot spacecraft to visit Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper belt. The mission is called New Horizons. After 9 years and 3 billion miles, the spacecraft has “come out of its hibernation” as it gets closer to reaching its primary target – Pluto. New Horizons is scheduled to arrive at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and then “go on to study other objects in the Kuiper Belt from 2018 to 2022.”
Why is this a big deal? The New Horizons spacecraft has traveled farther than any space mission has ever gone to reach its primary target. It has “crossed a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute. The spacecraft is currently more than 2.9 BILLION miles from Earth and just over 162 million miles from Pluto. As project scientist Hal Weaver, of APL, explains: “For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them.” Amazing.