In just five days, we Earthlings will see Pluto up close for the first time—and you can watch it live. In fact, start watching NASA TV now. There's already much to see and learn.
On July 14 at 7:49 a.m. ET, the New Horizons probe will be just 7800 miles above Pluto. That's less than the distance between New York City and Hong Kong. It traveled for nine years and 3 billion miles to get this close.
Today, July 9, the probe is about 3.5 million miles from Pluto. Already we're seeing better images of the ice-covered, atmosphere-evaporating dwarf planet than we've ever seen before.
The public has always had an intense affection for Pluto; consider the surprisingly emotional outcry when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union in 2006. Is Pluto finally returning our love? The photo above, taken July 7 by the probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), appears to show a giant heart at the lower right.
We're kidding, but the "heart" is notable because it's one of several planetary features that scientists at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which is operating the New Horizons mission for NASA, are seeing for the first time—and giving nicknames to while awaiting more precise data. (They've also identified a "whale" and a "donut.")
These images are only going to get better—500 times better, in fact. As the probe closes in on Pluto and its moons (most notably Charon), some images will have 500 times higher resolution. No more "little pixelated blobs seen from 3 billion miles away, but real worlds, with complexity and diversity, high definition and in color," enthuses New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver in the July 8 daily mission update—and who is downright giddy with excitement. (We at mental_floss are right there with you, Dr. Weaver.)
Beyond images, the mission aims to collect data on the surface chemical compositions of both Pluto and Charon by taking 64,000 "footprints" of each body. The probe will also gather data on Pluto's atmosphere, temperature, and pressure, which change depending on its proximity to the sun during its 248-Earth-year orbit.
So here's what's happening over the next few days as New Horizons makes its final approach. Scientists will take optical navigation data to make sure the probe is on the right trajectory to hit the optimal position, time, and lighting conditions to secure the best data from the flyby. Through July 13, you can check in daily at 11:30 a.m. ET on NASA TV for updates, images, and live briefings.
On July 14, the channel will broadcast a live countdown beginning at 7:30 a.m. to the moment of closest approach at 7:49 a.m. For much of the day, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control as it gathers data about Pluto and its moons.
The next day, the real fun begins as scientists begin to study the data—and NASA releases more images to the public.
In the meantime, you can find your "Pluto Time" twice a day, no matter where you are on Earth. (As NASA puts it: "It's always Pluto time somewhere.") At dawn and dusk, there's a moment when the light on Earth is similar to Pluto at noon. People are sharing their images on Twitter and Instagram.
Check back with mental_floss for updates both before and after July 14. We expect to see some fantastic sights in the next couple of weeks—and beyond. After its Pluto flyby, New Horizons is headed for the Kuiper Belt, a gigantic zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune.