NASA’s New Horizons has made its first visit to Pluto.
With this achievement, New Horizons became the first spacecraft to fly by the dwarf planet. It passed by within 7,750 miles within Pluto.
Detailed pictures of the dwarf planet were sent by New Horizons, which were then released by NASA, as it swept past Pluto.
The images to be released on Wednesday will be 10 times sharper than those captured so far, as reported by BBC.
The flyby of Pluto, its diameter measured 2,370 kilometers, marks the achievement that all nine celestial bodies – Mercury through Pluto, considered as the nine planets constituting the solar system – have been visited by a probe.
Alan Stern, the mission’s chief scientist, said, “We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the Solar System, an endeavor started under President Kennedy more than 50 years ago and continuing to today under President Obama.
“It’s really historic what the US has done, and the New Horizons team is really proud to have been able to run that anchor leg and make this accomplishment.”
John Grunsfeld, NASA’s chief scientist, spoke about the image sent by New Horizons before it began the flyby.
“This is true exploration… that view is just the first of many rewards the team will get. Pluto is an extraordinarily complex and interesting world,” he said.
In a message, British cosmologist Stephen Hawking congratulated the team for the success of the mission.
“Now the solar system will be further opened up to us, revealing the secrets of distant Pluto,” he said. “We explore because we are human and we want to know. I hope that Pluto will help us on that journey.”
According to Vox, the spacecraft was launched in January 2006. Over the last nine and a half years, it has flown in excess of 3 billion miles. Passing through Jupiter in 2007, it used the largest planet’s gravity to catapult itself outward.
New Horizons gathered data of several of the dwarf planet’s features: temperature, atmosphere, interactions with the solar wind, and its five moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. With all the information, along with the pictures yet to be received, scientists will be able to draw a more detailed and elaborate portrait of the dwarf planet.
“On the surface we see a history of impacts, we see a history of surface activity in terms of some features we might be able to interpret as tectonic – indicating internal activity on the planet at some point in its past, and maybe even in its present,” Stern said. “This is clearly a world where geology and atmosphere – climatology – play a role. Pluto has strong atmospheric cycles. It snows on the surface. These snows sublimate – (and) go back into the atmosphere – every 248-year orbit.”
However, it is possible that the spacecraft could get lost as it passes by Pluto. Collision with any ice debris floating in the system could have been deadly for New Horizons.
“Hopefully it did [survive],” said Stern, “but there is a little bit of drama.”
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