NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made history Tuesday morning when it became the first to reach Pluto after nearly 10 years and 3 billion miles of space travel.
Even though Pluto was demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006, it’s still part of the Solar System. It orbits at the very edge of it, in a mysterious zone of icy objects known as the Kuiper Belt.
We barely had an idea of what Pluto looked like until New Horizons began closing in on it this month. Now that the spacecraft is beaming back incredibly detailed, high-resolution images, we’re starting to learn a lot more about one of the last unexplored worlds in the Solar System.
Shortly after the flyby this morning at 7:49 a.m. ET, Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, tweeted out an image he created. It’s not to scale, but it’s perfect; Pluto sits in the bottom right:
It’s been 26 years since our last first look at a planet, when the Voyager spacecraft flew past Neptune in 1989. Today we can finally complete our solar system’s family portrait.
And really this is just the beginning for New Horizons. It’s going to fly beyond our Solar System and deep into the Kuiper Belt.
Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and New Horizons principal investigator, said this morning during a NASA press conference that the spacecraft “could go on for another 20 years,” thanks to its radioactive power source.
Jennifer Welsh contributed to this story.
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