What we've been waiting for: the first detailed image of the dwarf planet Pluto.
What magnificent timing! Fifty years from the flyby of Mariner 4 past Mars, NASA's patient deep space probe New Horizons has finally reached its destination and began its studies of Pluto and its moons. Discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto has orbited an eccentric path around the Sun, sometimes moving inside the orbital path of Neptune! Recently downgraded by the Astronomical Society from a full planet to a dwarf planet (being one of the Kuiper-Belt object series), the surface of Pluto has remained hidden even from the great eyes of the Hubble Telescope.
Liftoff from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral.
The New Horizons spacecraft left Earth on January 19, 2006. During its long voyage, patient mission controllers have monitored the systems and equipment until early this morning when the probe made a flyby at 7,100 miles from the surface. Totally focusing on the imaging mission during the short flyby time, flight controllers earlier had downloaded the best image yet taken in order to provide it to a news-hungry mob of spacecraft supporters and scientists at the John Hopkins Applied Research Lab. Then during the flyby, the spacecraft diligently focused entirely on imaging the planet, expecting to return images to Earth later when the spacecraft was far from the planet.
NASA graphic showing the path of New Horizons through the Pluto system of planet and moons.
The images will be slowly downloaded over the next 16 months. I'll plan to put these on this blog site as we get them, as this is the end of Earth's first reconnaissance of the Solar System. Our next goals will be detailed explorations of the planets and Moons as we search for possible life and valuable mineral deposits.