We have finally reached Pluto as closest as humanity has ever approached it. Spacecraft New Horizons from NASA that was scheduled to take the first ever pictures of this nature of the planet had sent out a confirmation signal to NASA yesterday night. The scientists will soon lay their hands on the images and precious data.
An image of Pluto taken on July 13, 2015, from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager located onboard New Horizons. When the picture was taken, the spacecraft was at 768,000 km from the surface of Pluto. Photo credits: NASA/APL/SwRI.
New Horizons successfully approaches Pluto
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has accomplished an unprecedented feat: it has approached Pluto the closest ever this week (July 14), and we will finally have the very first close-up pictures of the dwarf planet ever to be taken by mankind. This project has been realised after nine and a half years of preparation and 4.8 billion kilometres later.
New Horizons team members together with guests at the countdown of the spacecraft approaching the planet on July 14, 2015. Photo credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls.
New Horizons was scheduled to image and analyse Pluto, its largest moon named Charon as well as the surrounding system including other of its moons in a 2-hour-15-minute flyby. The procedure had begun at 7.49 a.m. EDT. The data only arrived to the Earth later yesterday night because of the huge distance between Pluto and us.
“Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the Solar System,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.
“The New Horizons team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system,” added Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve.”
Updated data: Pluto is wider than initially thought
The size of Pluto has been re-calculated as additional data was gleaned when the spacecraft approached it. The updated measurements show that 50 kilometres (km) have been added to its width, with a diameter of 2,370 km. The spacecraft also found that the lowest of its atmosphere (the troposphere) was shallower than thought.
The new information has important implications in the world of astronomy: Pluto is now revealed to be larger than another dwarf planet named Eris by around 45 km.
“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon, Washington University, St. Louis in a statement.
Pluto has thus been established as being the largest documented heavenly body in the Solar System beyond Neptune.
The upcoming 16 months will now witness the exposure of the full story of the flyby together with the totality of the measurements taken.
New Horizons’ new projects
New Horizons will now broaden its horizons: it will fly past some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), the details of which will soon be decided by the scientists. The spacecraft’s power might last till the 2030s.
Confirmation of flyby
The NASA scientists obtained the confirmation signal from the spacecraft informing them that the latter completed its flyby on July 14 at around 8.54 p.m. New Horizons had thus succeeded in calling home after taking the required pictures of Pluto and after having studied its moon: New Horizons had made its closest approach to Pluto at 7:49 a.m. eastern time about 12,500 kilometers above the surface.