Hurtling toward the Pluto system at 33,000 mph, NASA's New Horizons probe was briefly awakened from electronic hibernation earlier this month to go through a full dress rehearsal for the July 2015 flyby.
With eight cameras and four spectrometers running on an anemic 30 watts of power, New Horizons is "the most sophisticated payload ever sent on a first reconnaissance mission," said principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute during a presentation at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., on July 23.
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Stern emphasizes that this is a mission of superlatives. New Horizons is the fastest manmade object ever built. It is not only reaching the farthest classical planet in the solar system, but also surveying a new class of binary world.
There is little doubt that Pluto could have fascinating weather and geology, and serve as a Rosetta stone for the history of the solar system's vast outer rim. This region, called the Kupier belt, contains countless icy bodies - perhaps 900 others the size of Pluto.