The sophisticated piano-sized spacecraft, which launched in
"It's a cosmic coincidence that connects one of
New Horizons now is about 2.48 billion miles (nearly 4 billion kilometers) from Neptune -- nearly 27 times the distance between Earth and our sun -- as it crosses the giant planet's orbit at
Several senior members of the New Horizons science team were young members of Voyager's science team in 1989. Many remember how Voyager 2's approach images of Neptune and its planet-sized moon Triton fueled anticipation of the discoveries to come. They share a similar, growing excitement as New Horizons begins its approach to Pluto.
"The feeling 25 years ago was that this was really cool, because we're going to see Neptune and Triton up-close for the first time," said
Voyager's visit to the Neptune system revealed previously unseen features of Neptune itself, such as the Great Dark Spot, a massive storm similar to, but not as long-lived, as Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Voyager also, for the first time, captured clear images of the ice giant's ring system, too faint to be clearly viewed from Earth. "There were surprises at Neptune and there were surprises at Triton," said
Many researchers feel the 1989 Neptune flyby -- Voyager's final planetary encounter -- might have offered a preview of what's to come next summer. Scientists suggest that Triton, with its icy surface, bright poles, varied terrain and cryovolcanoes, is a Pluto-like object that Neptune pulled into orbit. Scientists recently restored Voyager's footage of Triton and used it to construct the best global color map of that strange moon yet -- further whetting appetites for a Pluto close-up.
"There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they'll match up," McNutt said. "That's the great thing about first-time encounters like this -- we don't know exactly what we'll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised."
Similar to Voyager 1 and 2's historic observations, New Horizons also is on a path toward potential discoveries in the Kuiper Belt, which is a disc-shaped region of icy objects past the orbit of Neptune, and other unexplored realms of the outer solar system and beyond.
"No country except
Voyager 1 and 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977, and one of the spacecraft visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 now is the most distant human-made object, about 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) away from the sun. In 2012, it became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. Voyager 2, the longest continuously operated spacecraft, is about 9 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) away from our sun.
New Horizons is the first mission in
The Voyager spacecraft were built and continue to be operated by
To view the Neptune images taken by New Horizons and learn more about the mission, visit:
For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit:
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