New Horizons Passes Pluto

by AMNH on

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At 7:49 ET on the morning of July 14, the NASA probe New Horizons made history, passing within about 8,000 miles of Pluto and capturing the most detailed images ever of the dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system.

While it did, the American Museum of Natural History helped viewers around the world follow the mission live with scientific visualizations and running commentary from project scientists. 

Pluto July 2015
A full color, high resolution image of Pluto captured by the New Horizons probe on July 13, 2015, before its closest encounter with the dwarf planet.

While it will take additional time for the data from this flyby to reach Earth—the images were captured about 3 billion miles away, after all—the mission seems to have gone just as planned. NASA scientists have already begun receiving images of Pluto—like the false color photograph below—though the full data set may take up to 16 months to be transmitted back to Earth.  

Pluto False Color
These false color images help show the different materials that make up the surfaces of Pluto and Charon.

At the Breakfast at Pluto event in LeFrak Theater, visitors watched visualizations of the probe’s mission with Curator Denton Ebel, Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart, and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson, who discussed the probe’s work with scientists from New Horizons mission control in real time. 

Getting the extreme close-up of Pluto was no easy feat. Tyson compared making a flyby of such a great distance to sinking a hole in one from 2 miles away. The success of the mission is already being being hailed as a hallmark moment for space exploration.

New Horizons encounter with Pluto
New Horizons encounter with Pluto, an artist’s representation.
Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

"Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system,” said NASA spokesperson John Grunsfeld in a statement.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, meanwhile, said the mission “inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve.”

The photos above are just a hint of the information the probe has gathered about Pluto, and information like thermal maps, atmospheric data, and topographic charts that can resolve formations on the surface of the planet at a scale of 50 meters are all on the way, as are new sets of data about the moons of Pluto: Charon, Styx, Hydra, and others. 

A visualization of Pluto and its moon Charon against black outer space.
Pluto and its moon, Charon. 

While it’s completed its journey to Pluto, the work of the New Horizons probe is far from over. As it processes and transmits information back to scientific institutions on Earth, the probe is continuing its travels into the Kuiper Belt at the edge of our solar system. Assuming the craft can withstand continuing bombardment by cosmic rays and avoid collisions with objects in the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons could potentially keep transmitting data back to Earth for years to come.

 “This isn’t the end of our exploration of the solar system, just because we checked off Pluto,” said Fran Bagenal, New Horizons’ co-investigator. “There are thousands of things out there still to look at. “