New Horizons enters the most intense period of Pluto flyby phase

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Nasa's unmanned spacecraft, New Horizons has begun the most intense period of its encounter with Pluto. The probe is set to pass the icy planet on Tuesday, grabbing a mass of pictures and other science data.

The probe is supposed to send a 'phone home' signal to Earth only when it has its trove of images safely in its onboard  memory and that will take nearly take five hours.

It means there will be a long, nervousness wait for everyone connected with the mission, as they hold out for a signal that will be coming from almost five billion km away.

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According to, mission controllers got a last health status report before the robotic craft turned its antenna away from the Earth to concentrate on its target.

New Horizons' flyby of 2,370km wide Pluto is a key moment in the history of space exploration. Its successful execution will mark the fact that every planet in the solar system, from Mercury to Pluto have been visited at least once by a space probe.

The spacecraft has been sending information on approach to Pulto in recent days, but this will be as nothing compared to the huge number of observations it plans to acquire when passing just 12,500km from the surface.

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The probe will also study Pulto's five moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. To do so it must perform a furious set of manoeuvres in the sky to get the images and other types of data it needs.

"I can't wait to get into the data and really start making sense of it. Right now, we're just standing under the waterfall and enjoying it," New Horizons' principal investigator, Alan Stern told BBC News.

New Horizons must fly a perfect path past Pluto, and with perfect timing - otherwise its cameras will shoot empty sky.

The mission team will not celebrate until New Horizons contacts Earth again, which should happen at 00:53 GMT Wednesday. This communication will contain only engineering information on the status of the probe, but controllers should be able to tell very quickly whether the flyby sequence worked properly or not.

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There is also a very small possibility that New Horizons could be lost as it flies through the Pluto system. Therefore, the mission team have downlinked one last set of data from all seven of the probe's instruments on Monday.

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