Why Hello There, Pluto: Dwarf Planet Gets Its Close-Up

Photo: Courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise.
Update: The New Horizons spacecraft has sent back its first up-close-and-personal images of the surface of Pluto — and they hold a big surprise.

Along the dwarf planet's icy surface, a range of mountains rises as high as the Rockies, some as tall as 11,000 feet. Researchers at NASA believe the mountains were formed no more than 100 million years ago, making them youngsters in our 4.56-billion-years-old solar system.

The New Horizons spacecraft first phoned home around 9 p.m. on Tuesday, 21 hours after it had passed by Pluto early that morning. Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland eagerly awaited the call that would tell them whether the decades-long endeavor to explore Earth's most distant neighbor had been a success.

Along the dwarf planet's icy surface, a range of youthful mountains rises as high as the Rockies, some as tall as 11,000 feet.

Advertisement

New Horizons made contact and successfully transmitted a 15-minute series of status messages, NASA said. Cheers erupted in mission control.

"I know today we’ve inspired a whole new generation of explorers with this great success, and we look forward to the discoveries yet to come," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a press release. "This is a historic win for science and for exploration. We’ve truly, once again, raised the bar of human potential."

Even President Obama celebrated the accomplishment with a tweet.

This story was originally published on July 14, 2015.

Scientists got their most up-close and personal look at a world very far away from Earth Tuesday when NASA's New Horizons spacecraft buzzed by the dwarf planet Pluto, snapping images and sending data 3 billion miles back to Earth.

Despite being discovered in 1930, Pluto had only been glimpsed previously through the high-powered Hubble space telescope. But the New Horizons spacecraft, a vehicle the size of a baby grand piano with an antenna on top, passed within 7,000 miles — about the distance between New York and Mumbai — of Pluto on Tuesday.

"Planet exploration is not for the squeamish or the impatient. The spacecraft took four years to build, and then we launched it on an Atlas 5 rocket. It was the fastest spacecraft launched, and it still took nine and a half years to get out there. So it's not something we are going to launch on Monday and see on Wednesday," Dr. Randii Wessen of Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) told Refinery29.

the New Horizons spacecraft, a vehicle the size of a baby grand piano with an antenna on top, passed within 7,000 miles — about the distance between New York and Mumbai — of Pluto on Tuesday.


New Horizons will now spend the next 16 months transmitting the data it collects back to NASA and JPL scientists. And it's already made some fascinating finds: Icy Pluto has mountains, craters, and polar caps. But it also has a warmer equator with two dark regions that form an almost heart shape, Wessen said.

Cheers erupted in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland early Tuesday morning as the spacecraft passed closely by Pluto.
Advertisement
Photo: Courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls.
New Horizons team members count down to the spacecraft's closest approach to Pluto on Tuesday morning.

But Wessen said that actually getting New Horizons so close to Pluto is just the beginning.

"It's always a celebration, because you are really excited, you have this huge accomplishment, you know it's historic. But the crazy thing is that once we get there, that's where the science begins. We're just now getting the information, and it's going to take a lot of time to get back and analyze it."

"The most important thing you can do as a person, as a country, and as a species is to learn...Space is infinite, and it's a wonderful opportunity for research and development."

Dr. Randii Wessen, Jet Propulsion Laboratories

Wessen said the team hopes that, rather than heading home, New Horizons will be able to explore objects in the Kuiper Belt, part of the solar system beyond the planets.

With the success of New Horizons, Wessen said that it is crucial for the U.S. to continue investing in its space program. In recent years, NASA has faced significant budget cuts.

"The most important thing you can do as a person, as a country, and as a species is to learn," Wessen said. "And that learning is broken up into two pieces: research and exploration to get the information, and teaching to pass it on. Space is infinite, and it's a wonderful opportunity for research and development."
Advertisement

More from Politics

The day after the debate, instead of shifting away from the issue, the GOP nominee doubled down on his weight-shaming comments. And on Friday, he took the ...
Election Day lasts just one day — a 24-hour culmination of the seemingly never-ending campaign season. But we’ll spend the next two, four, six years ...
GOP front-runner Donald Trump has gotten a lot of flak for some of the ridiculous statements he's made this campaign season, including that women who seek ...
If the chaotic party politics of the 2016 election have left you feeling completely birdbrained, this video is for you. The Founding Fathers (presented ...
Ebling has been by her friend's side through marriages, births, deaths — all the ups and downs of life. But she never expected her old playmate to be just ...
1. Major News: One person died in a Hoboken, NJ, train crash and more than 100 were injured. A commuter train crash on Thursday morning injured more ...
The Final Five are national treasures. They're basically a collection of perfect, perfectly happy humans. And who wouldn't be, especially after turning in ...
Throughout history, Americans have used activism as a tool to seek positive change in communities and in government. That's no different today. With ...
1. Here At Home: A teenager killed his father before opening fire at a school in South Carolina where he wounded two students and a teacher. ...
California passed a law Wednesday removing the state's 10-year statute of limitations for filing of child molestation and rape charges. Governor Jerry ...
Monday night was the personification of media bias and rigged politics
If you had to describe the current political climate in America, what word would you choose: volatile, toxic, or divisive? Perhaps all of the above. ...
Hillary Clinton has been a role model for our generation for years, and now she’s laying out a master class in taking on workplace sexism
1. Major News: A bill to prevent the government from shutting down and to fund the fight against Zika was stalled in the Senate. With a 45-55 vote, the...