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As New Horizons speeds towards its planned fly-by of Pluto on July 14, the biggest problem faced by its engineers is making sure the spacecraft actually finds and photographs the planet.
Because astronomers discovered the dwarf planet in 1930, they have seen only part of its 248-year path around the Sun, and they don’t know exactly where Pluto is. And New Horizons is so far from Earth that it takes 9 hours to send and receive a signal, making the spacecraft hard to direct in real time. “Everything is pushed to the extreme,” says Bobby Williams, an engineer at KinetX Aerospace in Simi Valley, California, who heads the mission’s navigation team.
This fact, which has not been mentioned previously as far as I remember, suggests that there is a good chance that New Horizons might fly through its planned window and aim its cameras at the wrong spot in the sky, missing Pluto entirely. It also explains partly why the images released so far have been so fuzzy: They are focused mostly on doing navigation work, and are taking wide angle shots to make sure they catch Pluto in their picture frame. Zooming in too close might actually miss Pluto as they don’t exactly know where it is.
All this only makes the July 14th fly-by even more exciting. Let us hope they do due diligence and get the pictures we all want!