LAUREL, Md. – At exactly 8:53 p.m. Tuesday night, NASA officials received a much-anticipated confirmation from the New Horizons spacecraft that it had successfully performed its scheduled scientific tasks during the 22-hour period it was out of contact with Mission Control.
Officials and spectators at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where the mission is being run, were ecstatic upon receiving the data. “We’ve been waiting nearly a decade for this moment,” said NASA’s missions operations manager Alice Bowman. After traveling more than three billion miles over a nine and a half-year period, New Horizons passed within 7,800 miles of Pluto and it’s five moons.
After reviewing the data, Ms. Bowman and other members of the mission team held a press conference to announce the findings. Dr. S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, described Pluto as having five regions of pronounced terrain. “Perhaps the most startling data we’ve received about Pluto is its size. We always imagine objects in our solar system to be relative in size to Earth,” said Dr. Stern. “Pluto, it turns out, is roughly the size of a marble.”
“This information just further proves that our knowledge of the universe, and even just our solar system, is extremely limited,” Ms. Bowman said, adding that Pluto’s moons are even smaller by comparison. “Of Pluto’s five moons, the smallest is barely visible to the naked eye. It’s largest moon, Charon, we think, is about the size of a BB.”
Dr. Stern said the sun’s light is what makes Pluto visible from Earth. “Light obviously travels at an unfathomable rate of speed across the universe. So when we’re seeing these planets and stars in the night sky, we often have no way of knowing their true size.”
Having completed its flyby of Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft will now make it’s way to the Kuiper Belt, a ring of primordial debris that encircles the outer reaches of the solar system. New Horizons will be the first spacecraft to reach the Belt, which scientists believe contains clues to the origins of our solar system.