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LAUREL (Maryland), July 14, 2015:

After more than nine years and 3 billion miles of travelling, Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft is just hours away from its history-making close encounter with Pluto and its moons.

In the early hours of Monday (GMT), the Nasa probe moved to within a million miles of the dwarf planet and as it closed in rapidly.

The mission has one opportunity to gather detailed pictures and other science data during the encounter, reported BBC News.

The spacecraft is moving so quickly it cannot stop and will simply shoot past Pluto on Tuesday (GMT).

Every observation the spacecraft seeks to make at Pluto must be carried out in just a few hours.

With nearly five billion kilometres between Earth and Pluto, any radio message carries hours of delay. Thus the probe cannot be controlled in real time and it will be working to an automated command sequence, reported BBC News.

A last batch of pre-flyby data will come down on Monday (GMT). This will include a 600-pixel-wide, full-frame image of Pluto itself.

The 'New Horizons', depicted in the artist's concept above, will use miniature cameras, radio science experiments, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments to study Pluto and its moon Charon in detail. — Pic credit Nasa / JHUAPL / SRI
The ‘New Horizons’, depicted in the artist’s concept above, will use miniature cameras, radio science experiments, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments to study Pluto and its moon Charon in detail. — Pic credit Nasa / JHUAPL / SRI

The BBC News reported that the probe will then go radio silent. Its final contact is set for 03:17 GMT on Tuesday (23:17 EDT Monday / 11.17am Tuesday in Malaysia). During the hours of closest approach, when it gets to within 12,500km of the surface, New Horizons is simply too busy to talk to Earth.

The mission team will be waiting anxiously at its operations centre here at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) for a signal confirming that the flyby was completed without incident.

This message should start to come through at 00:53 GMT Wednesday (20:53 EDT Tuesday / 8.53am Wednesday in Malaysia).

“We’ll be waiting with the rest of the world,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons’ mission operations manager at the APL, reported NBC News.

More than 1,000 VIPs and journalists are converging on APL for the climax of the US$728 million mission.

This marks the first up-close examination of the icy worlds beyond the orbit of Neptune — and arguably the last mission of its kind for the foreseeable future.

According to NBC News, after the Pluto encounter, New Horizons‘ team members plan to ask Nasa to extend their mission so they can study at least one more icy world in the broad ring of icy material that lies beyond Neptune’s orbit — a region known as the Kuiper Belt.

But that encounter wouldn’t take place until New Horizons has travelled another three-and-a-half years and another billion miles.

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