This morning, the New Horizons probe revealed to Earth a tantalizing picture of the most desolate and mysterious region of space. The photos snapped during NASA’s long-awaited flyby of Pluto are just the first glimpse in what’s expected to be over a year’s worth of data on the far-away ice giant.
“The Pluto system is enchanting in its strangeness, its alien beauty,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.
On Tuesday morning, just before 8 a.m., NASA’s probe conducted a flyby that is nearly a decade in the making, coming within 7,800 miles of Pluto — the closest mankind has ever come, Space.com reported. The historic event was watched live by 1,200 scientists, NASA guests, dignitaries, and 200 reporters.
Now that New Horizons has made its 3 billion-mile journey, NASA has a lot more work to do. In the months that follow the “space event of the decade,” data from the distant planet and her moons will pour in, and the world will finally be introduced to this mysterious world at the edge of space.
“The fact is that we will be downloading this information for more than a year,” U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who helped keep the New Horizons mission afloat, told NBC News. “And we will be analyzing it for a generation.”
What we know about Pluto is scant. The dwarf planet is 39 times farther away from the sun than Earth, meaning it’s very tough for instruments here to get a clear picture of it. Until now, NASA’s only view was a cluster of fuzzy pixels. Not until 1978 did scientists even know she had a moon, soon named Charon. Between 2005 and 2012, they found four more — named Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx.
The New Horizons mission has already illuminated Pluto. The probe has revealed that it’s a bit bigger than once thought, has a polar ice cap, an enormous, heart-shaped bright spot, and dark patch nicknamed “the whale.” Charon has craters and canyons, and its own dark spot at its north pole. New Horizons will look closer, at the tiniest features to its “wispy” atmosphere. The surfaces of both bodies will be mapped out and its geology studied (and creatively named, as the Inquisitr previously reported).
The point to all this is to figure out how the ice giant and her moons fit into the solar system, CNN added.
“It is the completion of this initial reconnaissance of our solar system. It’s giving us a new perspective about how we as human beings fit into the universe,” said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager.
NASA cannot wait until they can look at this data, but they — and the rest of us earthlings — will have to be patient. The first photos of Pluto are expected Wednesday afternoon.
For the next nine days, the spacecraft will continue its flyby, operating in “close encounter mode” to collect data. But it can’t let mission control know until Tuesday night that it’s doing alright out there in cold space. Until then, we won’t even know if the trip was successful. That means Tuesday will be tense, Stern said.
“There’s that small element of danger, so I think we’re all going to breathe the final sigh of relief at 9 p.m., and that’s when we can really call it a successful flyby.”
And we won’t get all that data for another 16 months — it’ll take that long for the info to be beamed back to Earth and into the eagerly waiting hands of scientists. Meanwhile, the probe won’t land or orbit, but soar deeper into the icy Kuiper Belt — of which Pluto is a part — to keep exploring.
[Photo Courtesy of Twitter]