Ready for its close-up: First spacecraft to explore Pluto

This July 8, 2015 image provided by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute shows Pluto, right, and its moon, Charon, from the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) combined with lower-resolution color information from the spacecraft's Ralph instrument. (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via AP)
This July 8, 2015 image provided by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute shows Pluto, right, and its moon, Charon, from the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) combined with lower-resolution color information from the spacecraft's Ralph instrument. (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was expected to get up-close and personal with Pluto on Tuesday, on track to zoom within 7,800 miles of the small icy world left unexplored until now.

It’s the final destination on NASA’s planetary tour of the solar system, which began more than a half-century ago. Pluto was still a full-fledged planet when New Horizons rocketed away in 2006, only to become demoted to dwarf status later that year.

The 3 billion-mile journey from Cape Canaveral, Florida, culminates Tuesday at 7:49 a.m. EDT. That’s when the spacecraft is due to fly past Pluto at 31,000 mph.

The New Horizons team gathered at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, won’t know for many hours if everything went well. The spacecraft will be too busy taking photographs and collecting information to “phone home.” A confirmation signal is expected at around 9 p.m. EDT.

New Horizons has already beamed back the best-ever images of Pluto and big moon Charon. Pluto also has four little moons.

“The Pluto system is enchanting in its strangeness, its alien beauty,” principal scientist Alan Stern told reporters Monday.

Discovered in 1930, Pluto is the largest object in the so-called Kuiper Belt, considered the third zone of the solar system after the inner rocky planets and outer gaseous ones. This unknown territory is a shooting gallery of comets and other small bodies.

An extension of the $720 million mission, not yet approved, could have New Horizons flying past another much smaller Kuiper Belt object, before departing the solar system.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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