Scientists in Canberra will be first to receive the Pluto signals from the New Horizons spacecraft

Artist’s rendering, Pluto’s largest moon Charon rises over the frozen south pole surface of Pluto, casting a faint silvery luminescence across the distant planetary landscape. Image: CSIRO

A group of 18 people in the ACT will be the first in the world to get the signal from NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons as it makes its closest encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons tonight.

The craft will get closest, about 12,500 km above the surface, at 9:49.57 pm (AEST) today. The signals it sends will then take four and one half hours to reach the CSIRO’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla.

The centre, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network, will be the first place on Earth to receive the close encounter images from the space probe.

Canberra will then translate the signal and push it on to NASA in the US where the first images will be created.

The Australians have been tracking New Horizons since its launch in January 2006.

Lewis Balls, head of astronomy and space science at the CSIRO, says the New Horizons mission is one of the great explorations of our time.

“There is so much we don’t know and not just about Pluto, but also about similar worlds,” Dr Ball says.

“Reaching this part of our solar system has been a space science priority for years, because it holds building blocks of our solar system that have been stored in a deep freeze for billions of years.”

Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex capturing whispers from space. Image: CSIRO

Pluto was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006 but it is thought to contain important clues about the origins of the Solar System.

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex has been involved in many of space exploration’s greatest moments, from images of the first moon walk to views from the surface of Mars and the first close-ups of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

There will be so much data collected from Pluto it will take up to a year before all of the images and science observations made by the spacecraft are fully transmitted back to Earth.

NOW READ: We’re going to reach Pluto for the first time in history — here’s how to watch

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