Pluto photographed by New Horizons on July 13. Image: NASA/APL/SwRI
NASA’s New Horizons space probe made history at 7:49:57 am EDT on July 14 as it became the first spacecraft to reach the distant dwarf planet Pluto. The probe has been travelling for more than nine years and three billion miles.
The US probe flew past Pluto at around 49,600 km/h. According to a report by the BBC, it was within 12,500 km of the planet’s surface. NASA scientists celebrated the momentous event at the mission control center at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.
Scientists react to seeing the sharpest image yet of Pluto. Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls
“Pluto is an extraordinarily complex and interesting world,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s science chief, on NASA live TV at mission control.
Equipped with cameras, the New Horizons probe is beaming back some images and data on Pluto back to Earth. So far, images have shown how Pluto’s topography was dotted with mountains, craters, and valleys.
In a live interview at the mission control center, Alan Stern, the New Horizons Mission principal investigator, spoke of how the images revealed a history of impacts and surface activity that indicated tectonic movement below the planet’s surface.
Earlier today, NASA released one new image of Pluto (top) taken at roughly 4pm EDT on July 13, before the flyby. At the time the image was taken, the spacecraft was 476,000 miles from the planet’s surface.
New Horizons has been beaming back information on Pluto and its five moons—Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx—over the last few days, as it approached the planet. Some of this data is currently being analysed by scientists at NASA.
More data and color images of the Pluto are expected later on today as the probe continues to transmit data back to Earth.
“99 percent of the data is still on the spacecraft,” said Stern, noting how happy he was that the spacecraft hadn’t been taken out by a “debris strike.”