Excitement builds as Pluto flyby nears, a decade after launch

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There’s a near-perfect heart shape on Pluto’s rusty red surface which scientists are seeing for the first time as a piano-sized NASA spacecraft, New Horizons, hurtles toward the distant body on its way toward a historic flyby on July 14. …

Pluto, right, and its moon Charon, left.

Pluto, right, and its Texas-sized moon Charon, left.

Pluto [was] once considered the farthest planet in the solar system before it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.

That same year, the New Horizons mission launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a journey of nearly 10 years and three billion miles, becoming the first spacecraft to explore this far-away frontier. …

The closest flyby is scheduled for July 14 at 7:50 am (1150 GMT), when New Horizons passes within 6,200 miles (9,977 kilometers) of Pluto. Moving at a speed of 30,800 miles (49,570 kilometers) per hour, it is the fastest spacecraft ever launched. …

“The instruments on New Horizons were all designed to work together to give us a comprehensive picture of the Pluto system,” said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist for New Horizons. … Together they will help scientists study Pluto’s geology, surface composition, temperature and atmosphere — as well as its five moons. More data in the coming days should reveal more clues about the composition of Pluto’s surface, as well as its Texas-sized moon, Charon.

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