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FROSTY MISTRESS of the Outer System: Pluto yields to probe snapper

Navigational images will help boffins home in on icy body

NASA's New Horizons spaceship, which has been on its mission to Pluto for nine years now, is expected to start snapping photos of the icy planet today.

The probe has travelled roughly 3 billion miles away from Earth for its closest approach with the dwarf planet expected to take place on 14 July this year.

Boffins at the U.S. space agency said that the New Horizons 'craft was already recording plenty of science data from its SWAP, PEPSSI and SDC instruments.

It's gathering information about the charged particle and dust environment of the space near the orbit of Pluto, which – like Earth – has an atmosphere made up primarily of nitrogen. While its minor gases include carbon monoxide and methane.

And now, the probe will begin capturing images as it nears the icy body on the planetary outskirts of our solar system.

New Horizon's LORRI long focal length camera will take photos of the Pluto system for navigational purposes, NASA scientist Alan Stern said.

"This will yield dozens of images that our navigation teams will analyse for positional information about Pluto and Charon [the dwarf planet's largest moon] against star fields, allowing us to home in more accurately than by radio navigation from Earth alone," the agency's boffin added.

Among NASA's objectives for the Pluto flyby, researchers hope to determine how its atmospheric pressure and temperature differ from the surface to the high altitude, said Stern. They also want to find out if Pluto has an ionosphere. ®

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