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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft begins historic approach to Pluto

After a nine-year journey, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has kicked off its mission to explore everyone's favorite dwarf planet, Pluto.

After nine years practically to the day, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has officially kicked off its historic encounter with Pluto.

NASA confirmed on Thursday that New Horizons is entering the first of several approach phases, which will culminate on July 14 when the space probe is nearest to Pluto, allowing it to capture some close-up images of the dwarf planet. New Horizons is still about 135 million miles away from Pluto, according to NASA, and on January 25 it will begin to capture long-range images of the Pluto system that will give scientists a better look at the dynamics of Pluto's moons and help them navigate New Horizons the rest of the way.

"We've completed the longest journey any spacecraft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring," Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a press release.

New Horizons woke from a series of hibernations in December, and is itching to get started capturing images of Pluto's majesty. The images from Pluto won't start to get interesting until around May, when the probe gets close enough to Pluto that the planet will look like more than just a bright dot in the distance.

In addition to Pluto and its many moons, New Horizons will explore some of the rest of the Kuiper Belt, which is an unexplored asteroid-rich region of our solar system that might have thousands of small, icy, rocky planets similar to Pluto. And, if New Horizons is still up and running in the year 2038, New Horizons will be just 100 or so AU (astronomical units) from the sun, and might be able to send data to help us better understand the sun's outer heliosphere.

2015 is shaping up to be an incredible year for space knowledge and imagery, and I can speak for the rest of the space geeks (video) at Crave in saying that we're thrilled to see what New Horizons learns about Pluto, its moons and the Kuiper Belt beyond. Godspeed, New Horizons.