Mankind won the solar system today. We met the “King of the Kuiper Belt” and took his picture. And we explored a new planet for the first time in decades. The New Horizons flyby of Pluto means we’ve now seen every type of world that revolves around our Sun, from the rocky inner planets to the gas giants in the middle, and now, to the icy worlds at the outer edge.
It was standing room only at the New Horizons headquarters at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Maryland. The countdown to the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EDT felt like New Year’s Eve. Crowds cheered and flags waved.
“It’s like a scientific Woodstock,” New Horizons principle investigator Alan Stern told me days ago. Although there were no illegal drugs, booze, or tie-dye shirts, people were definitely getting high on science.
The celebrations are limited somewhat by the fact that we can’t say for sure whether the spacecraft successfully navigated the flyby.
The New Horizons team is flying blind. Right now the spacecraft is 3 billion miles away, and it needs to use this time to collect data and images, so scientists here on Earth won’t receive any communications from the spacecraft until this evening. The spacecraft will run on autopilot as it maps the dwarf planet’s surface, measuring its composition, analyzing its atmosphere, and more. During this morning’s press conference, we caught a glimpse of the mission operations center, which was completely empty except for a custodian vacuuming the floors.
This evening, the spacecraft is scheduled to check in with its human handlers, so by then we should know whether the flyby was successful or not. There is a tiny fraction of a chance that the spacecraft will get knocked out by the dust or debris that’s floating around in the Kuiper Belt. The chances of that happening are 1 in 10,000, Stern said in a press conference yesterday, “but we’re flying into the unknown. This is the risk you take with all kinds of exploration.”
If all goes according to plans, we should be looking at the first close-ups of Pluto and its largest moon Charon by tomorrow afternoon.