Nine and a half years ago, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft left earth for a three billion-mile journey to the far reaches of our solar system. This morning, it flew by Pluto, and the dwarf planet was finally ready for its close-up.
The journey represents a staggering achievement for space discovery. The New Horizons craft departed earth nearly ten years ago, which means it is operating with decade-old machinery and tracing a path calculated in the earth 2000s. In addition to providing new, highly detailed images of Pluto, scientists hope to the fly-by will settle the debate on Pluto’s size, confirming it as the largest object in the Kuiper Belt.
The moment of closest approach took place at 7:49 am this morning, when the craft whizzed by the icy planet at about 31,000 miles per hour, offering a very brief window for data collection. It takes four and half hours for this data to reach earth and several more for NASA’s 200 foot-wide satellites to receive the full transmission, a rate that’s 56 times slower than a 56k modem from the 1990s. (Turns out three billion miles is a really long way.)
The Pluto sighting is the first new planet sighting in a generation—NASA’s last sightings of Uranus and Neptune were in the 1980s—and it’s likely to the last one for a very long time. For S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the mission, the next several days of unpacking data should prove “mouthwatering.”
Beyond Pluto, New Horizons will continue to pass beyond the fringes of the solar system and transmit data from deep space until about 2030 when it loses power.
After that? Well, it’ll just keep on going.
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