NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has traversed the orbit of Neptune. This is its last major crossing en route to becoming the first probe to make a close encounter with distant Pluto on July 14, 2015.
The piano-sized spacecraft launched in January 2006, reached Neptune’s orbit, nearly 2.75 billion miles from Earth, in eight years and eight months. New Horizons’ milestone matches precisely the 25th anniversary of the historic encounter of NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft with Neptune on Aug. 25, 1989.
The spacecraft now is about 2.48 billion miles from Neptune, nearly 27 times the distance between the Earth and our sun, as it crosses the giant planet’s orbit at 10:04 p.m. EDT Monday.
Although the spacecraft will be much farther from the planet than Voyager 2’s closest approach, New Horizons’ telescopic camera was able to obtain several long-distance “approach” shots of Neptune on July 10.
New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. (Souce and image credit: NASA)