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New Horizons to Fly by Pluto, Capture Much-Anticipated Photos in Historic Mission

After nine and a half years and traveling three billion miles, New Horizons will fly by Pluto and its five moons on July 14 in order to learn more about the distant dwarf planet.

"The spacecraft is expected to come within 7,750 miles of Pluto and will be performing an incredible array of measurements courtesy of the menagerie of scientific instruments on board," Slooh Host Eric Edelman said. "They will be mapping the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon in the highest resolution for this dwarf planet system."

Edelman added that the spacecraft will also search for evidence of meteorite collisions and cryovolcanoes (or volcanoes, which are often found on icy moons, that spew chemicals like ammonia or methane rather than molten rock) as well as use radio waves to determine the radius of Pluto.

The day of the flyby, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control due to being busy gathering data about Pluto and its moons.

According to Slooh, the primary mission of New Horizons is to "map the global geology and topography of Pluto and its largest moon Charon."

They added that the mission will help in determining the surface compositions and temperatures of Pluto, and Charon as well as measure Pluto's atmosphere.

"Instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft will measure the atmospheric temperature, density, fluctuation over time, and composition of Pluto's atmosphere," Edelman said.

The first images of the dwarf planet's surface, taken by New Horizons, will be released on July 15, the day after the approach. Slooh will be showing these images and discussing what they mean in a live show starting at 5:30 p.m. EDT on July 15.

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory and became the ninth planet of the solar system. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) changed the definition of a major planet, changing Pluto's classification to a dwarf planet.

New Horizons was launched on Jan. 19, 2006, passing various planets on its journey to discover more about Pluto.

On July 4, 2015, the New Horizons team experienced a scare when the spacecraft went into safe mode and lost communication with Earth around 2:00 p.m. EDT. The missions operations center at John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory reestablished communications with New Horizons soon after around 3:15 p.m. EDT through NASA's Deep Space Network with no damage to the spacecraft.

After the spacecraft passes Pluto, it will move into the Kuiper Belt, an asteroid-like belt, which starts near the orbit of Neptune and extends for another 20 astronomical units into space, which is close to the total distance from Uranus to the sun.

"The National Academy of Sciences wants to see New Horizons fly by a Kuiper Belt object that is about 12-30 miles long, which was a tall order at the start of the New Horizons mission," Edelman said.

Edelman added that it was not until 2014 that the team was able to find three reasonable candidates in the Kuiper Belt, from the use of the Hubble telescope, to fly by after Pluto. NASA and the New Horizons teams will make a final decision this summer to determine which Kiuper Belt objects New Herizons will head towards during fall of 2015.