The 17th was a big day for us puny humans, when NASA’s New Horizons became the first ever spacecraft to fly past the dwarf planet Pluto. At 1149 GMT, New Horizons flew past Pluto and took the first ever photograph of the planet.
NASA launched New Horizons as part of its Final Frontiers Program on the 19th of January, 2006 with the intent of exploring the Kuiper Belt, Pluto and its moons Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. The space craft is as big as a grand piano and is expected to gather as much as 5,000 times as much data as Mariner did from Mars.
Doesn’t sound like a big deal? Think again. This is the first time in a generation that we are seeing the dwarf planet. The last time we got to glimpse high resolution images of new planets was in the 1980s. For starters, we never even knew the colour of the planet; all we had were blurry Hubble Telescope images and artist illustrations. The other thing is that nine years after launch, New Horizons reached its destination, a long 3 billion mile journey. That is like driving around the Earth continuously for 2204.58 years with an average speed 100 km/h, granted, the space craft was going much faster!
The space craft shot past Pluto at a blistering 45,000 km/h, making it the fastest aircraft to ever leave the Earth’s orbit. In 2007, it used Jupiter’s gravitational pull to create a sling-shot effect to increase its speed dramatically. This helped it get there faster. The vehicle’s trajectory brought it within 12,400 km of Pluto when it passed by.
NASA took to Instagram yesterday to show the world the snapshot that they received. It takes four and a half hours for any sort of exchange to happen between the spacecraft and Earth. To add to the four hours of high tension for NASA scientists, when going past Pluto, the antenna is pointed away from Earth, resulting in complete radio silence. The scientists had no idea if the objective was completed for at least five hours.
The journey has certainly been a challenge, with the now obsolete technology and four and a half hour delays in communication there have definitely been many nail-biting moments. Thanks to Jupiter and a few thruster burns over the years, the trajectory has been maintained and it reached a precise location in space that was calculated nine years ago! There was a 1-in-10,000 chance that New Horizons would be hit by flying space debris.
The biggest scare came on the 4th of July, when the spacecraft went into safe mode and stopped responding to commands from NASA. It was found that a software anomaly had caused the problem and it resumed regular duties three days later.
Over the coming days and weeks, as New Horizons settles into Pluto’s orbit, it will go in closer and begin to send high resolution images of Pluto and Charon. It doesn’t really register in our brains how big our solar system is, but when something like this happens, some altering of perspective is possible.