Most Recent Image of Pluto Taken Before Flyby: Credit NASA/SWRI
Fifty years to the day after NASA’s Mariner 4 took the first images of another planet from deep space as part of its flyby of Mars, the space agency’s New Horizons probe has sailed past the point of its closest approach to the planet Pluto.
Rocketing through Pluto’s system at more than 30,000 mph, New Horizons made its flyby at 7:50 AM EDT, and will spend the next several hours keeping all its resources focused on the mysterious world which is suddenly in the rear view mirror. The spacecraft will send only a brief “phone home” signal expected to arrive at 9:00 PM EDT this evening to indicate that it is healthy and performing as intended. The first images taken during the flyby will begin arriving tomorrow, commencing what mission PI Alan Stern described as a 16 month waterfall of data. It is a stream which could continue well into the 2030’s as New Horizons journeys on to the Kuiper Belt and beyond, powered by its PU-238 RTG nuclear reactor. And yes, the “P” stands for plutonium, providing a pleasant bit of circularity, as the element was indeed named after the planet to which it has now returned.
Today’s flyby, historic on so many levels, completes what NASA is describing as the anchor leg in America’s initial reconnaissance of the solar system. And the key word is initial, as the question which evoked the most animated response at this morning’s press conference looked past today’s event to ask simply “when can we go back to Pluto?” The answer, provided by Stern who had anticipated the question was a good one, “I have secretly been working on a lander proposal.”
There is rather obviously, much more to come.