Mark Your Calendars: In A Year, We'll Arrive At Pluto It takes a long time to travel 3 billion miles. On July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will finally get a flyby glimpse of the dwarf planet, as part of a mission launched in 2006.
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Mark Your Calendars: In A Year, We'll Arrive At Pluto

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Mark Your Calendars: In A Year, We'll Arrive At Pluto

Mark Your Calendars: In A Year, We'll Arrive At Pluto

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In January 2006 the New Horizons spacecraft left Earth on a 3 billion mile journey to Pluto and the farthest depths of our solar system. This trip takes a long time - like, nine and half years and guess what? We're almost there. So mark your calendars - a year from tomorrow it'll finally reach its destination. Here's NPR's Priska Neely.

PRISKA NEELY, BYLINE: I've been interested in Pluto since I was little for a pretty simple reason - like my name, it starts with a P.

ALAN STERN: Well, that's one reason. My name starts with an A and I'm interested in Pluto.

NEELY: Alan Stern is more than interested. He's the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Planning for this mission started almost 25 years ago and Stern has been there since the beginning. Next year on July 14th Stern and his team will finally see that close encounter. They chose that date back in 2001.

STERN: Not only do we choose the date, by the way, we chose the hour and the minute and we're on track. We're arriving at Pluto on the morning of the 14 of July 2015. It's Bastille Day - to celebrate, we're storming the gates of Pluto.

NEELY: But let me be clear, this is an unmanned flyby mission by a spacecraft about the size and shape of a baby grand piano. No humans or robots will be landing and walking around.

STERN: Arriving's a little bit of a squishy term, I know. At closest, approach will be about 6,000 miles from Pluto.

NEELY: That distance was carefully calculated to make sure that they could get the sharpest images and avoid being pulled into Pluto's orbit. Six thousand miles away is still way closer than we've ever been.

STERN: The closest any spacecraft had ever been to Pluto was ridiculously far - about a billion miles. And we've been within a billion miles of Pluto for years now and so everyday we break our own record.

NEELY: The best images of Pluto so far are from the Hubble telescope. By May of next year, the New Horizons spacecraft will beat that.

STERN: We actually call that our BTH date - Better Than Hubble.

NEELY: By the way, in case you're wondering the New Horizons team didn't plan on the whole thing where Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet - the same year as the launch. But that didn't change anything for Alan Stern.

STERN: I always think of Pluto as a planet.

NEELY: Some planetary scientists still dispute Pluto's planet status. And either way, Stern says, missions like this always turn up surprises.

STERN: When we first sent missions to Jupiter no one expected to find moons that would have active volcanoes. And I think there's been a long list of how many times we've been surprised by the richness of nature.

NEELY: And so now we wait.

STERN: You'll just have to wait just like we will to unwrap this present. Save the date - July 14th, 2015 - humankind's encounter with Pluto.

NEELY: The New Horizons spacecraft is healthy and full of fuel. So after that, it'll keep going - exploring beyond Pluto into the outer rim of our solar system. Priska Neely, NPR news.

MCEVERS: And the World Cup has just ended with Germany defeating Argentina 1-to-0. You're listening to NPR News.

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