In 2006 scientists stripped Pluto of its planet status saying it is too small, but on Tuesday Pluto became huge when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reached the solar system’s distant outlier after a 9 1/2 year journey.
The rendezvous is, as with all of NASA’s great moments, mind-boggling. The craft about the size of piano left Earth at 36,373 mph– the fastest spacecraft to ever – and reached Pluto after traveling 2.96 billion miles. Early photos revealed intriguing variations on Pluto’s surface and a large, bright area in the shape of a heart.
The New Horizons spacecraft gathered data about Pluto and its moons Tuesday, but its communication with flight controllers was turned off to conserve energy for its other functions. When it does communicate, scientists will get a torrent of information about the former planet that 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh discovered in 1930 as a faint speck of light. After Pluto, the spacecraft will continue through the solar system’s outer region full of icy objects known as the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons’ mission will end in 2026.
Along with its complex equipment, New Horizon carried a small amount of Tombaugh’s ashes to its meeting with Pluto. That human touch speaks to the wonder that ultimately drives these astonishing technical feats. What one man’s eyes detected billions of miles away 85 years ago, a spacecraft’s electronic eyes on Tuesday drew close to behold.