For my money, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond is one of the most audacious and exciting missions sent out through the solar system. I say that as someone who cut her teeth doing science reporting on the Voyager missions! This time last year, we all waited for the spacecraft to arrive at the planet. When it did, on July 14, 2016, it whizzed past at a speed of 49,600 kilometers per hour, and then continued on its way. Hundreds of us — team members, friends, family, and the press were absolutely exhilarated at the dazzling visions of the distant world we were seeing. The data have been streaming back ever since then and each download provides an amazing look at a world that nobody expected. Here’s a “highlights” tour of what we know about Pluto so far.
When the Pluto research papers came out in late 2015 and spring 2016, they revealed a curious and interesting place. Pluto is a real world, with diverse surface features and active geology. It has really fascinating surface chemistry. There’s a complex layered atmosphere, a somewhat puzzling interaction with the Sun, and a collection of small moons that are fascinating places in their own right.
Mind you, those facts (and the science behind them) are what the Pluto science team know after only a few months of data returned by the spacecraft. The full data load won’t finish relaying back to Earth until late 2016. So, there’s still lots to see — and learn. In the meantime, the mission team racks up awards and recognition by the scientific community for their contributions to planetary science. All of it is well-deserved.
Where’s New Horizons Now?
Right now, New Horizons is outbound from Pluto. It already has another target in sight — a Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69. NASA gave the official go-ahead for the extended mission to the next world “out there”. That flyby happens on January 1, 2019. I hope that we’ll all gather again to cheer the spacecraft on as it makes the first-ever close encounter with a KBO beyond Pluto. It’s been an amazing ride, and it’s all thanks to the amazing spacecraft and its Earthbound support team.