Scientists and guests cheer at the countdown as the spacecraft New Horizons approaches a flyby of Pluto, at NASA's Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, on Tuesday. Credit: Mike Theiler/Reuters
After a journey of nine years and 3 billion miles, the New Horizons spacecraft re-established contact with NASA and was furiously collecting data and what are expected to be "dazzling" images of the dwarf planet Pluto.
Starting at 5:50 a.m. ET on Wednesday, the spacecraft is expected to begin sending the most detailed images of the dwarf planet that scientists have ever seen, along with mapping and measurements about the planet, its atmosphere and moons.
The new images are expected to be 10 times higher in resolution than previous images the probe has sent back as it approached Pluto.
"It's going to be gorgeous data," said Glen Fountain, New Horizons' project manager. "Dazzle us. It will dazzle us. We've seen just a hint of that data and there is more to come."
On Tuesday, New Horizons, a piano-sized spacecraft that was launched in January of 2006, became the first space probe to make a close flyby of Pluto. Using its seven instruments, the probe is expected to deliver the first detailed scientific information about the rocky and icy dwarf planet.
In a press conference Tuesday night amid cheering, tears and raised arms -- NASA administrator Charles Bolden called the flyby a historic accomplishment for NASA and for mankind.
"With this mission, we have visited every single planet in our solar system," Bolden said. "Every mission... and exploration is expanding our knowledge of our solar system and the universe, and paving the way for future missions. This is one more step in our journey to Mars because it gives us one more piece of the puzzle to our solar system."
NASA received a signal from the spacecraft around 9 p.m. Tuesday, alerting scientists that it had made its closest approach to Pluto and was functioning properly.
Alan Stern, New Horizons' principle investigator, said the message from the spacecraft was set up to be short and succinct so it could spend as much time as possible making scientific measurements and capturing images.
The first real dump of scientific data is expected this morning and will be sent to NASA and Johns Hopkins University, which designed, built and operates New Horizons.
"If you think it was big today, wait until tomorrow and the next day," said John Grunsfeld, a former NASA astronaut and associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. "You haven't seen anything yet. This is just the beginning. It's the beginning of the mission."
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