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US spacecraft survives close encounter with Pluto

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NASA image received July 14, 2015 shows an image of Pluto and Charon presented in false colors obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft/AFP

NASA image received July 14, 2015 shows an image of Pluto and Charon presented in false colors obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft/AFP

UNITED STATES, Jul 15 – An unmanned NASA spacecraft whizzed by Pluto on Tuesday and survived its close encounter with the distant dwarf planet after a journey of three billion miles (4.8 billion kilometres) and nearly 10 years.

Moving faster than any spacecraft ever built at a speed of about 30,800 miles per hour, the nuclear-powered New Horizons – about the size of a baby grand piano – snapped pictures of Pluto as it hurtled by on auto-pilot.

The photos will reveal details of Pluto never seen before in the history of space travel.

Some 13 hours after the flyby, applause broke out in mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Centre outside the US capital Washington, as the spacecraft made its “phone-home” contact with Earth and all systems were reported to be intact.

“We have a healthy spacecraft,” said mission operations manager Alice Bowman.

“We are outbound from Pluto.”

The confirmation eased anxiety among scientists who were waiting all day to find out if the $700 million New Horizons survived the chaotic Kuiper Belt, the region beyond Neptune that Stern has described as a “shooting gallery” of cosmic debris.

NASA had said there was a one in 10,000 chance that the spacecraft could be lost, and all it would take would be “a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice.”

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