NASA's spacecraft New Horizons has crossed the Neptune's orbit and now it is on its way to become the first probe to make the historic Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015.
The sophisticated piano-sized spacecraft, which launched in January 2006, reached Neptune's orbit, nearly 2.75 billion miles from Earth, in a record eight years and eight months. New Horizons' milestone matches precisely the 25th anniversary of the historic encounter of NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft with Neptune on Aug. 25, 1989.
New Horizons now was about 2.48 billion miles from Neptune, nearly 27 times the distance between the Earth and its sun. Although the spacecraft will be much farther from the planet than Voyager 2's closest approach, New Horizons' telescopic camera was able to obtain several long-distance "approach" shots of Neptune on July 10.
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.
Similar to Voyager 1 and 2's historic observations, New Horizons also would also help unravel potential discoveries in the Kuiper Belt, a disc-shaped region of icy objects past the orbit of Neptune, and other unexplored realms of the outer solar system and beyond.