‘We’ve inspired a whole new generation of explorers’ – Pluto flyby a success

15 Jul 2015

NASA's New Horizons team celebrate first contact with spacecraft. Image via NASA/Bill Ingalls

Humanity can look at itself in the mirror and say, “good job”, this morning with the confirmation signal that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was still operating during its Pluto flyby with images to be revealed later today.

The NASA team had a nervous 21-hour wait following the exact time when New Horizons would be making its flyby when the craft had entered radio silence, but just before 9pm EDT last night (2am Wednesday, Irish time) the little craft phoned home.

During that time, the craft had shut off all communications with Earth in order to focus all of its capacity to gather as much scientific data as possible, but once completed began its pre-programmed ‘phone call’, which consisted of a 15-minute series of status messages beamed back to mission control through NASA’s Deep Space Network.

As far as the flyby went, the craft actually zoomed past the dwarf planet at nearly 50,000km/h a little closer than originally planned, just 12,472km above its surface which will come as good news to us, and bring a sigh of relief to NASA’s team no doubt.

“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 following the confirmation. “This is a historic win for science and for exploration. We’ve truly, once again, raised the bar of human potential.”

Also offering his congratulations was US President Barack Obama, who took to Twitter to thank the NASA team for its efforts.

Cut to the chase, when do we see the photos?

Given that it is more than 3bn miles away from Earth, New Horizons is only capable of sending back data at a speed of 4,000bps but, regardless, NASA should have its first scientific readings by 5.50am EDT (10.50am Irish time).

This will include the much-anticipated images of the dwarf planet’s surface at a resolution 10-times what has been seen from its previously closest approach of 1m miles away.

Given that it will be rather eager to go through what has been found by New Horizons, NASA has set a press conference time for the media to see the first images at 3pm EDT (8pm Irish time).

You can also be assured that even after today’s revelations of the once-unknown icy planet, the amount of scientific data obtained will be so vast that it will take at least 18 months for it to be returned here to Earth as it continues on its journey into the Kuiper belt.

So for perhaps the last time in many people’s lifetimes, so long Pluto, you’ve captured the minds of millions on a bigger neighbour 3bn miles away.

Pluto passing cartoon

Gif via Imgur

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic