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Why NASA's New Horizons Mission to Pluto Is Such a Big Deal

Why should we spend more than $720 million of the taxpayers’ money on NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto? Commentary by NBC News' Jay Barbree.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — This week we should see an entirely new world come to life.

It’s a dwarf planet that lives beyond our solar system’s eight big planets. It’s called Pluto.

Nine and a half years ago, a planetary ship named New Horizons left its Cape Canaveral launch pad with such velocity that it shot past our moon in nine hours, 10 times faster than an Apollo mission. It flew by Mars’ orbit in less than three months, and past Jupiter a year later.

New Horizons spent most of its journey in hibernation, until a final wakeup call in December prepared the planetary investigator for an approach that is producing increasingly detailed images of mysterious Pluto.

At 7:49 a.m. ET on Tuesday, New Horizons will be 7,750 miles from the faraway planet and will zip past its 1,473-mile-wide surface at 30,800 miles per hour. Its suite of seven science instruments will be busy gathering close-up pictures and taking chemical readings during its trip through Pluto’s mini-planetary system of five moons, Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra and Kerberos.

Hours after the flyby, the spacecraft is due to "phone home," telling its handlers on Earth that it succeeded. That phone call from 3 billion miles away will take four and a half hours to reach Earth. If all goes according to plan, New Horizons will then start sending pictures with such high resolution that they'd reveal major roads and structures if they were taken at the same distance over our own planet.

Why? Why should we spend more than $720 million of the taxpayers’ money on this far-out trip?

For the science, the promise of an avalanche of new knowledge that will help pave the way needed for humanity's survival — for the day when Earth will no longer support our species, and we have no choice but to leave for new worlds.