On July 13 at 7:49 a.m. EDT cheers erupted in the control room at John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto. This culminates a journey spanning 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) and 9 1/2 years. On July 15, an official confirmation was received as the spacecraft sent back some of its first images and data.
At a press conference held on July 15, principal scientist Alan Stern expressed his excitement at the mission and stated that more data is expected in the coming days. First images of the icy planet and its moons were released at the conference.
— NASA (@NASA) July 15, 2015
As a tribute to Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde William Tombaugh, Stern and his team named a bright, heart-shaped area on the surface of Pluto as the Tombaugh Reggio. Tombaugh is credited to having discovered the planet as early as 1930. The New Horizons spacecraft is currently carrying ashes of the late astronomer. It was one of his last wishes that his ashes be sent out into space.
First observations of the dwarf planet:
- According to mission scientists, Pluto is 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter, making it somewhat larger than previous estimates.
- Images of Pluto’s moon Charon revealed that there were no craters, but cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers).
- The images revealed four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos.
- An image of Hydra revealed its irregular shape and size, which is estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles .
- According to data, the surface coloring ( reddish tint) contrary to the assumption of a dull, blue color could be due to concentrations of frozen methane and nitrogen.
Whats next for New Horizons?
New Horizons was launched with the aim to study Pluto and the region in the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt. Pluto, with this fly by has now been confirmed as one of the largest objects in the Belt. The spacecraft is expected to continue to send images and data from Pluto before moving on to its next step. If NASA approves the next step of the mission, New Horizons is expected to get more data about some more objects located in the same region — the Kuiper Belt is at least a billion miles past Neptune’s orbit. The belt is believed to be collection of objects circling around the sun beyond Neptune ( hence referred to as trans-Neptunus objects) and appear to be a wide range of colors: red, blue, and white. The spacecraft is expected to exit the solar system after its mission.
In 1992, astronomers began talking about the region and objects beyond the inner solar system that holds the 8 planets. The Kuiper Belt begins the orbit of Neptune to approximately 50 astronomical units from the Sun. The belt contains objects that are believed to be remnants from the formation of the solar system that did not form into planets.
How much does the mission cost?
According to NASA, the mission costs bout $700 million (including spacecraft and instrument development, launch vehicle, mission operations, data analysis, and education/public outreach) over the period 2001-2016.
Source: Information from NASA, John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, AP, BBC, UCLA, Brittanica and the Guardian.