Pluto probe closes in on Jupiter

The fastest spacecraft ever sent into the solar system has almost reached Jupiter, just a year after it was launched. Nasa’s £400 million New Horizons probe has begun taking photos and other measurements of the giant planet and its four biggest moons.

It will use Jupiter’s own gravity like a slingshot to catapult it on towards its eventual target, distant Pluto.

The flypast will boost its speed by an additional 9,000mph to more than 52,000mph. Even so, it has so far to travel – around four billion miles – that it will not reach Pluto, on the edge of the solar system, until July 2015.

Mission control will use the flyby to test New Horizons’ systems and put seven science instruments through their paces. It will make more than 700 observations of Jupiter’s stormy atmosphere, its faint ring system and its four largest moons.

The spacecraft also will take the first-ever trip down Jupiter’s “tail” – a wide stream of charged particles, called the magnetosphere, that extends tens of millions of miles beyond the planet.

Closest approach to Jupiter occurs on February 28. Chief scientist Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, said: “Our highest priority is to get the spacecraft safely through the gravity assist and on its way to Pluto.”

He added: “We also have an incredible opportunity to conduct a real-world encounter stress test and to collect some valuable science data.”

The artist’s impression of the New Horizons probe approaching Jupiter was produced by Dan Durda of the Southwest Research Institute.

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