Pluto Flyby a Success!

Pluto Image Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI

Tonight, the NASA New Horizons spacecraft successfully sent home the all-clear signal after it safely passed through the Pluto-Charon system. The image to the left was the last image obtained by the spacecraft before turning its sensors toward pluto for its primary science mission. During that time it was necessarily out of communication in order to focus all of its time on capturing the valuable data that it was created to obtain. Just before 9pm EDT (7pm MDT) tonight, we finally got word from the spacecraft that it had survived and collected its data.

I had a blast tonight. I attended a public New Horizons flyby event at the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder Colorado. It was completely filled to capacity, with people lined up outside the door. They put on an excellent program and kept the audience engaged and excited throughout. When they announced that telemetry data had been acquired from the spacecraft, signaling good communications after the flyby, the audience roared.

Two speakers presented opposing views on the topic of Pluto’s planet-hood, which of course led to lively responses from the crowd. Personally, coming from a background of planetary science, I tend to fall on the side that yes, I would call Pluto a planet.  That requires some explanation, so perhaps I will get into that in a subsequent post.  But for tonight, lets leave this debate behind us and marvel at the beauty of this system of worlds that is in the process of unfolding before our very eyes.

The latest image, returned early this morning before the flyby event is by far the most stunning to date.  Pluto has become a real world, that we can imagine ourselves visiting some day, or perhaps sending a lander to in the future.  The geology of the world is fascinating and will no doubt lead to many new discoveries and surprises.  The system of moons is as diverse as it is mystifying.  The variation on the surfaces of both Pluto and Charon is more than we could have hoped for.

As a life long space-fan, and a planetary scientist, I would just like to thank NASA and the New Horizons team for giving the world this precious gift.  I can’t wait for all of the wonderful data that will be streamed back to Earth over the next few months.

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