NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft began its journey nine and a half years ago and covered a distance of 3 billion miles to reach the distant reaches of the solar system.
“I would like to characterize that DSN (Deep Space Network) pass you just watched as one small step for New Horizons and one giant leap for mankind,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons lead scientist, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
New Horizons’ success of flying past Pluto is the culmination of a 50-year effort to explore the solar system. Experts estimated that there was 1-in-10,000 chance that a debris strike could destroy the spacecraft in those farthest reaches.
About 13 hours after its closest approach to Pluto, the last major unexplored body in the solar system, New Horizons sent a signal back to the earth. The spacecraft had survived 31,000 miles per hour blitz through the Pluto system.
After another 4 and half hours, New Horizons sent back the first images it captured. It is the closest image of Pluto that the world has seen so far. The spacecraft is so far from Earth that radio signals traveling at the speed of light, take about four and a half hours to reach Earth. And it will be another 16 months before New Horizons transmits back all the images and measurements taken during the flyby.
“Pluto is an incredible new world and we are the first ever to see it as the Pluto New Horizons spacecraft zipped by Pluto and the best is yet to come,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate.
99 percent of the data gathered during the whole expedition is still on the spaceship. Thus New Horizons’ survival was critical to the mission.
After its flypast, New Horizons conducted a series of experiments to study the planet’s atmosphere and photograph its night-side using the light that is reflected off its primary moon, Charon.
New Horizons was launched in 2006 and at that time it was still considered the ninth planet of the solar system. It was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet” after the discovery of other Pluto-like, ice-and-rock worlds orbiting beyond Neptune.
NASA scientists were overjoyed when New Horizons signalled back. The project’s success was a big achievement for USA.
“Once again we have achieved a historic first. The United States is the first nation to reach Pluto and with this mission we have visited every single planet in our solar system,” said Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator.