Pluto up close: Spacecraft apparently makes successful flyby

Pluto up close: Spacecraft apparently makes successful flyby
This July 13, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Pluto, seen from the New Horizons spacecraft. The United States is now the only nation to visit every single planet in the solar system. Pluto was No. 9 in the lineup when New Horizons departed Cape Canaveral, Fla, on Jan. 19, 2006 (NASA via AP)

In a day of both jubilation and tension, scientists anxiously waited Tuesday for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft to send word across 3 billion miles and confirm it got humanity's first up-close look at Pluto.

All indications were that the craft successfully made its flyby, and a cheering, flag-waving celebration swept over the in Maryland. But confirmation was not expected to reach Earth from the edge of the solar system for another 13 hours, or about 9 p.m. EDT.

The unprecedented encounter was the last stop on NASA's grand tour of the planets over the past half-century. New Horizons arrived at the small icy world after an epic journey that began 9½ years ago, back when Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet.

"This is truly a hallmark in human history," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's science mission chief. "It's been an incredible voyage."

According to NASA, the spacecraft the size of a baby grand piano swept to within 7,700 miles of Pluto at 31,000 mph. The countdown to confirmation began as New Horizons went past the dwarf planet and began studying its far side.

To commemorate the moment of closest approach, scientists released the best picture yet of Pluto, taken on the eve of the flyby.

Even better images will start "raining" down on Earth beginning Wednesday, promised principal scientist Alan Stern. But he cautioned everyone to "stay tuned" until New Horizons contacted home.

It takes 4½ hours for signals to travel one-way between New Horizons and Earth. The message was due to go out late in the afternoon during a brief break in the spacecraft's data-gathering frenzy.

Pluto up close: Spacecraft apparently makes successful flyby
In this photo provided by NASA, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colo., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory hold a print of a U.S. stamp with their suggested update since the New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. At center right under the stamp is Annette Tombaugh, daughter of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

"We're counting" on good news, said Stern, a Southwest Research Institute . "But there's a little bit of drama because this is true exploration. New Horizons is flying into the unknown."

Jim Green, NASA's planetary science director, admitted to being "on pins and needles" while waiting for New Horizons to tell , "I made it!"

Pluto up close: Spacecraft apparently makes successful flyby
This July 11, 2015, image provided by NASA shows Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft. On Tuesday, July 14, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will come closest to Pluto. New Horizons has traveled 3 billion miles over 9½ years to get to the historic point. (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via AP)

Among the possible dangers: space debris that could destroy the mission. But with the chances of a problem considered extremely low, scientists assembled at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory erupted in jubilation when the moment of occurred at 7:49 a.m. EDT. The lab is the spacecraft's developer and manager.

Joining in the hoopla were the two children of the late American astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh. (Some of his ashes are aboard the spacecraft.)

The White House and Congress offered congratulations, and physicist Stephen Hawking was among the scientists weighing in.

"Hey, people of the world! Are you paying attention?" planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, part of the New Horizons' imaging team, said on Twitter. "We have reached Pluto. We are exploring the hinterlands of the solar system. Rejoice!"

The U.S. is now the only nation to visit every planet in the solar system. Pluto was No. 9 in the lineup when New Horizons left Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 19, 2006, but was demoted seven months later to dwarf status.

Scientists in charge of the $720 million mission hope the new observations will restore Pluto's honor.

Stern and other so-called plutophiles posed for the cameras giving nine-fingers-up "Pluto Salute."

The picture of Pluto taken on Monday showed an icy, pockmarked world, peach-colored with a heart-shaped bright spot and darker areas around the equator. It drew oohs and aahs.

Pluto up close: Spacecraft apparently makes successful flyby
Guest and New Horizons team members count down to the spacecraft's closest approach to Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. The moment of closest approach for the New Horizons spacecraft came around 7:49 a.m. EDT Tuesday, culminating an epic journey from planet Earth that spanned an incredible 3 billion miles and 9½ years. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

"To see Pluto be revealed just before our eyes, it's just fantastic," said mission operations manager Alice Bowman.

The Hubble Space Telescope had offered up the best pre-New Horizons pictures of Pluto, but they were essentially pixelated blobs of light.

Flight controllers held off on having New Horizons send back flyby photos until well after the maneuver was complete; they wanted the seven science instruments to take full advantage of the encounter.

New Horizons is also expected to beam back photos of Pluto's big moon, Charon, and observe its four little moons. It will take 16 months, or until late 2016, for all the data to reach Earth.

Pluto up close: Spacecraft apparently makes successful flyby
Members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing the spacecraft's last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach later in the day, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was on track to zoom within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto on Tuesday. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

On the eve of the encounter, NASA confirmed that Pluto is, indeed, the King of the Kuiper Belt. New measurements made by the spacecraft show that Pluto is 1,473 miles in diameter, or about 50 miles bigger than estimated.

That's still puny by standards. Pluto is just two-thirds the size of Earth's moon. But it is big enough to be the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, a zone rife with comets and tens of thousands of other small bodies.

Pluto up close: Spacecraft apparently makes successful flyby
Members of the New Horizons science team react to seeing the spacecraft's last and sharpest image of Pluto before closest approach later in the day, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft was on track to zoom within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto on Tuesday. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

Stern and his colleagues wasted no time pressing the U.S. Postal Service for a new stamp of Pluto.

The last one, issued in 1991, presented an artist's rendering of the faraway world and the words: "Pluto Not Yet Explored." The words "not yet" were crossed out in a poster held high Tuesday for the cameras.


Explore further

Ready for its close-up: First spacecraft to explore Pluto

More information: NASA: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/

Johns Hopkins University: pluto.jhuapl.edu

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Jul 14, 2015
I think that we should establish once and for all what parameters define what does or does not constitute a planet. I suggest the following guidelines:

1. If it looks like a perfect sphere from space it is a PLANET

2. If it has a spheroid shape but is somewhat elliptical yet has a seemingly contiguous surface, it is a PLANETOID

3. If it looks no different from a large rock, it is a PLANETUSSY.

Jul 14, 2015
Just looking at those many happy faces on those photos it reminds me of old saying: "I sing a song of those whose bread I eat".

The same applies to Wall Street guys and politicians who want to 'Serve a Man".

And reality flows away in psychedelic cloud of ecstasy over an ice ball while peoples live are shattered on Earth.

Jul 14, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jul 14, 2015
I think that we should establish once and for all what parameters define what does or does not constitute a planet. I suggest the following guidelines:

1. If it looks like a perfect sphere from space it is a PLANET

2. If it has a spheroid shape but is somewhat elliptical yet has a seemingly contiguous surface, it is a PLANETOID

3. If it looks no different from a large rock, it is a PLANETUSSY.


In its 2006 response, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), recognised by astronomers as the world body responsible for resolving issues of nomenclature, released its decision on the matter. This definition, which applies only to the Solar System, states that a planet is a body that orbits the Sun, is massive enough for its own gravity to make it round, and has "cleared its neighbourhood" of smaller objects around its orbit.

Rules are already clearly defined. Pluto is not a planet because it co-orbits a barycentre with Charon.

Jul 14, 2015
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Jul 14, 2015
Well done NASA and its Space Exploration Teams! Unstinting kudos to this and previous efforts in peaceful voyages of discovery in the name of, and for the benefit of, all intelligent reasoning compassionate and passionate enlightened beings everywhere...including the humanity of Planet Earth.

@docile. :) Mate, try to tone down the political and personal 'takes' when acknowledging honest and dedicated efforts from the genuine and well meaning and hard working people involved in such exploratory sagas, irrespective of what you might think of 'the system' as a whole. Being churlish at times like this does not reflect well on anyone wanting to be taken seriously as an objective and understanding and tolerant mind, hey? Be generous and just give credit where credit is due, irrespective of how it transpired. I for one am admiring of the longterm planning, persistence, dedication, sacrifices by people 'on the front lines' working together for so long to explore Pluto/Other KBOs. :)

Jul 14, 2015
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Jul 14, 2015
mrnovember, doug_huffman: It's not the barycentre that makes it not a planet. Any pair of objects in orbit have a barycentre of course. What makes pluto-charon interesting (and a "double-(dwarf) planet") is that the barycentre lies *outside* of the more massive body (pluto)

The thing that disqualified it is that it hasn't "cleared its orbit." There are a lot of bodies similarish to pluto that have a similar orbit as pluto does.

Jul 14, 2015
Hi docile. :)
I'm just saying, that we should wait for first results from Pluto encounter before we will present it as a success for not to face the unnecessary shame and evasions. This is a common https://en.wikipe...rinciple in science...;-) It just requires us to wait six - eleven hours with all these demonstrations of pride and patriotic sentiment.
Yes, I understand what you are saying, but it's the way you said it, with all the begrudging and gratuitously snarky 'context'.

Besides, there are two aspects we must distinguish:

- the planning/getting there at all; and

- the scientific aims/results achieved.

I applaud the first aspect now, and do not begrudge those responsible their moment of celebration/enjoyment of that first aspect achievement per se.

But I also understand and agree with you that, as far as the second aspect, we should wait for the whole dataset assessment before cheering scientific 'returns' from Pluto/KBOs studies. :)

Jul 14, 2015
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Jul 14, 2015
The thing that disqualified it is that it hasn't "cleared its orbit." There are a lot of bodies similarish to pluto that have a similar orbit as pluto does.


There is a problem with that definition too though. The sun and all the planets are traveling though space so we are technically always entering 'new' space as we orbit around the center of the milky way. So in reality none of the planets or even the sun has 'clear it's orbit' in that respect.

Jul 14, 2015
At least no one wearing a socially objectionable T-shirt.

Jul 14, 2015
20 minutes before we're scheduled to receive a 300 baud transmission from Pluto.

Jul 14, 2015
Spacecraft status report live from NASA TV at the next half hour. http://www.ustream.tv/nasahdtv

Jul 14, 2015
Just looking at those many happy faces on those photos it reminds me of old saying: "I sing a song of those whose bread I eat".

The same applies to Wall Street guys and politicians who want to 'Serve a Man".

And reality flows away in psychedelic cloud of ecstasy over an ice ball while peoples live are shattered on Earth.

Really?!?
Wow, just wow...
I've done psychedelics in the past and don't see all that...

Jul 14, 2015
Neptune isn't a planet because it hasn't cleared Pluto-Charon out of its path.

Jul 15, 2015
Pluto is not a planet because it co-orbits a barycentre with Charon.


Not entirely correct. The external barycenter doesn't disqualify it. It's that clearing its neighborhood means it must be the dominant gravitational force in its orbital zone. Earth shares its orbit with plenty of asteroids however Earth is gravitationally dominant in that it is 1.7M times the mass of all other object in its orbital zone. Pluto's mass is only .07 times the mass of the remaining objects in its orbital zone. The metric is such that you take the mass of the candidate planet and divide it by the mass of all other bodies in the orbit and if the answer is 1 or more then it's a planet. The Pluto - Charon system could have been a binary planet but there's too many Kuiper Belt Objects around it.

Jul 15, 2015
In the end: what does it matter how it's classified? Doesn't change the science or the planet in the least way.

The only effect is that it shortens one of the lists schoolchildren are supposed to learn by rote*. And learning by rote is one of THE most pointless things to do in any case. When it comes to understanding science it's actually counter productive because you're taught to see a pattern where none exists.

*OK, it also throws a wrench in the works for astrologists. But they're mad, anyhow.

Jul 15, 2015
LOL Look he's having a conversation with the mouse in his pocket and has convinced himself that the Sun is a planet
okay, any non-self-illuminating spherical body, then, or for that matter, any sphere that is not obviously a star. Split hairs..

Jul 17, 2015
And reality flows away in psychedelic cloud of ecstasy over an ice ball while peoples live are shattered on Earth.


If you're going to stand on that soap box, I hope you're spending 100% of your time and 100% of your disposable income helping the shattered lives of this world. Because otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite, no?

Write a letter to Chevy and tell them to stop making faster cars, and to dump that R&D money into feeding the hungry. Email Samsung, telling them to hold off on the next version of their Galaxy phone until all war has ceased.

Yes, life sucks for so many people, but least some people are doing amazing things. Good for you, New Horizons team. Thanks for doing something inspiring, and I actually mean it.

Jul 17, 2015
Pluto is not a planet because it co-orbits a barycentre with Charon.
I do believe that there is an Earth-Luna barycenter.


Right, but the barycenter is inside the earth. Th Pluto Charon situation is a co-orbit because the barycenter lay outside both both bodies in question. That's the distinction.

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