After traveling three billion miles over the course of almost a decade, the New Horizons spacecraft will finally make it to Pluto on July 14, 2015.
"It's Bastille Day," Alan Stern, principal investigator for NASA's Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission, told NPR. "To celebrate, we're storming the gates of Pluto." New Horizons isn't actually going to land on Pluto, but will fly within 6,000 miles of the dwarf planet. The mission has been calculated so the spacecraft — which is unmanned and the size and shape of a baby grand piano — doesn't get caught in Pluto's orbit, but can still get close enough to take photographs that are not too blurry.
The closest any spacecraft has been to Pluto is one billion miles, and the best images have come from the Hubble Telescope. When New Horizons left Earth in January 2006, it was prior to Pluto's demotion to a dwarf planet, and Stern is excited to see what will be discovered in 365 days. "When we first sent missions to Jupiter, no one expected to find moons that would have active volcanoes," he said. "And I could go down a long list of how often I've been surprised by the richness of nature." --Catherine Garcia