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.
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.
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."
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."