JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — Christmas is arriving early at NASA and the gift is the invaluable data that the New Horizons probe will yield about Pluto as it passes by the dwarf planet early today, a NASA official said.

“This will be the first time in human history that we have ever taken any pictures of this dwarf planet,” said Dewayne Washington, a spokesman at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington, D.C. “We’ll be able to see and confirm for the first time a lot scientific discoveries that we’ve never had before.”

New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006, and swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, according to NASA. The arrival at Pluto is the culmination of a nine-and-a-half-year voyage from Earth.

At 7:49 a.m. today, the probe will be within 7,800 miles of Pluto, and will conduct a flyby study of the dwarf planet and its moons. But the data won’t be arriving back home quickly, Washington said.

Once the probe reaches Pluto, NASA scientists will issue the command for it to take photos and gather data as it passes by the planet. The commands will take 4-1/2 hours to reach the probe, and the data it yields will take as long to reach Earth, for a total of 9 hours of transmission time.

Sending New Horizons on the long journey will help to answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies, according to NASA.

“It’s going to unlock some keys we hope about the formation as far back as the beginning of the universe,” Washington said.

“It’s (Pluto) on the outer edges of the Solar System, and we want to see what other materials we’ll be able to find.

“It (the mission) will confirm some things, unveil a lot of things, and possibly raise more questions,” he said.

Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a category known as “ice dwarfs.”

They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.

Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto – Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

A close-up look at these worlds from a probe promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system, according to NASA.

As New Horizons speeds past Pluto, a fleet of spacecraft closer to home will also be watching the dwarf planet. 

At Saturn, the Cassini probe will take an image of Pluto on Tuesday, and the measurements will complement the work done by the New Horizons mission.

And on July 23, the Spitzer Space Telescope will begin seven days of observations. Its infrared images will provide data on ice that could be changing on Pluto’s surface, NASA officials said.

In yet another first, Washington said, the arrival of New Horizons at Pluto marks the first time in history that the United States has visited every planet in our solar system.

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