A space tracking station surrounded by cows in an Australian valley will on Tuesday become the first place in the world to get close-up images of Pluto, the most distant planetary body ever explored.
After nine-and-half years of traveling 5.3 billion km (3.3 billion miles), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s spacecraft New Horizons will get within 12,500 km (7,800 miles) of Pluto on Tuesday evening.
The spacecraft has been sent specifically to take pictures of Pluto, a part of the solar system that has been in deep freeze for billions of years. The data will be relayed back to the tracking station at Canberra’s Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).
“It’s very exciting because we have never ever visited Pluto, either by robots or man missions because it is so far away,” CDSCC Director Ed Kruzins told Reuters. Up to now, little has been known about Pluto, the most distant planetary body in the solar system and the last to be explored by NASA.
It was downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006 and is thought to contain important clues about the origins of the solar system. “There’s a feeling among scientists that Pluto probably will tell us what the early solar system looked like and it’s now locked in deep freeze and maybe it will tell us what we once were, a long time ago,” Kruzins said.
New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft ever launched, is due to send a message that will be received by the Australian tracking station on Wednesday – a key message that will determine if the mission has been a success. Each piece of data will then take about four-and-half hours to transmit, with the full dataset taking about 15 months to complete.
New Horizons will travel at 58,000 km (36,039 miles) per hour past Pluto, Kruzins said, which could pose a problem if there is any space debris.
“Even a grain of sand would cause significant damage to the vehicle, it would be like being hit by a brick at 70 kilometres per hour,” Kruzins said. The tracking station, 35 km (20 miles) from the capital of Canberra, is part of NASA’s Deep Space network and is one of only three tracking stations in the world.
New Horizons will be at its closest to Pluto for about 24 hours before continuing on its journey to the outer solar system.