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Hopkins Spacecraft Breaks Record for Proximity to Pluto

December 2, 2011

Artist's concept of New Horizons approaching Pluto. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

A probe made by Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory today is closer to Pluto than any other spacecraft in human history. The craft, called New Horizons, launched on Jan. 19, 2006.

Since its launch, New Horizons has been traveling more than 621,000 miles a day on its way to the icy orbiter, which is 3.1 billion miles from Earth. Its final destination is about 7,767 miles from Pluto, at which distance it will be able to see details as small as a football field; it’s expected to reach this goal on July 14, 2015. The previous record was held by NASA’s Voyager 1, which swung about 983 million miles from Pluto in 1986 on its way to interstellar space. The APL will “wake” New Horizons from its current state of hibernation in January for a month of testing and maintenance, according to the press release.

Another APL spacecraft made news recently with the announcement that MESSENGER, which in March became the first spacecraft to lock into orbit around Mercury, was dubbed one of the 100 best innovations of the year in the Aviation and Space category by Popular Science magazine, taking its place next to projects like the recently launched Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover, the asteroid-probing DAWN spacecraft, and the SpaceX Dragon, the first privately built craft to safely orbit and return to Earth.

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