Just before 9 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, scientists at NASA received a phone call from over 3 billion miles away, telling them that the New Horizons spacecraft had completed its historic flyby of Pluto, and was alive and well.
“This is a historic win for science and for exploration. We’ve truly, once again raised the bar of human potential,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “We look forward to the discoveries yet to come.”
New Horizons, which had been programmed to not communicate with Earth until it was beyond the Pluto system, will now continue its journey deeper into the Kuiper Belt -- a region of the solar system where the dwarf planet Pluto is believed to be the largest object. Scientists hope that studying objects in this dark, frozen region would provide them vital clues to the formation of our solar system.
“With the successful flyby of Pluto we are celebrating the capstone event in a golden age of planetary exploration,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said, in a statement. “While this historic event is still unfolding --with the most exciting Pluto science still ahead of us -- a new era of solar system exploration is just beginning.”
— NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) July 15, 2015
New Horizons, which, incidentally, is powered by Plutonium -- an element named after the dwarf planet -- completed its flyby at 7:49 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, after nearly a decade-long journey through the solar system. Then, the spacecraft spent over eight hours looking back at Pluto for a series of observations to study the planet’s atmosphere and photograph its night side.
Sending back its first post-flyby signal took another four-and-a-half hours -- the time light and radio signals take to cover the distance between Pluto and Earth.
Although high-resolution images of Pluto and its moon Charon are expected in the coming hours and days, beaming back all the data stored in New Horizons’ onboard memory would take up to 16 months. For now, the highest resolution photo available is the one released by NASA hours before the flyby, showing Pluto’s “heart” and its two-toned surface.
“Every once in a while, a photo comes along that has the ability to shift not just how we see our place in the universe, but how we see ourselves -- not just as Americans, but as citizens of Earth,” John P. Holdren, U.S. President Barack Obama’s science adviser, said, sharing the photo with the White House.
Following the flyby, congratulatory messages poured in from the likes of Obama -- who tweeted a photo of the dwarf planet from his official account -- and British cosmologist Stephen Hawking.
“Now the solar system will be further opened up to us, revealing the secrets of distant Pluto,” Hawking said, in a video message released early Tuesday. “We explore because we are human, and we want to know. I hope that Pluto will help us on that journey.”
And then, there was this tongue-in-cheek message from American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson:
Dear Pluto, Lookin’ good. But you’re still a Dwarf Planet — get over it. Love, Neil deGrasse Tyson pic.twitter.com/qBBD9feG6e
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) July 15, 2015