Column: New Horizon shines a light on distant Pluto

When New Horizons phoned home at 5:52 p.m. PDT Tuesday to announce its arrival and start sending data, standing ovations broke out

On Tuesday, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft kept its date with the dwarf planet Pluto and, from that first photo on, space scientists have been gobsmacked.

From just 7,750 miles (some 12,700 km) above the planet’s surface, New Horizons revealed that Pluto is a landscape of icy mountain ranges matching the Rockies with ice peaks some 11,000 feet high with canyons, hummocks and hills and features that, said scientist John Spencer, “looked really strange…like piles of stuff with grooves on it.” Its surface is covered in nitrogen, ice, and methane ice.

The commute to Pluto tops the extreme adventure records. Launched on January 19, 2006, it’s been a three-billion-mile (nearly five-billion-kilometre), journey taking 9.5 years. And, get this: it took about one minute less than calculated to arrive at its closest approach point to Pluto. Talk about exact science! New Horizons hit the bulls-eye space window – a mere 60 km by 90 km between the dwarf planet and its largest moon Charon – right on target.

Charon is also yielding secrets with a strange dark spot already nicknamed “Mordor” from Lord of the Rings stories, a 10-kilometre deep canyon and a series of troughs and cliffs that extend over 960 kilometres.

We know so little about Pluto that we don’t even know its size. Until now. It is 2,370 kilometres in diameter, a bit bigger than first thought but still only 18.5 per cent the size of Earth. Pluto is so far out there in our solar system that it takes 248 Earth years to orbit the sun.

In perspective, the little planet was first sighted in 1930 by 24-year-old research assistant Clyde Tombaugh when working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. That was nine years before the onset of World War II. Yet, since Tombaugh’s discovery, Pluto has only made it one third the way around a single orbit.

When this tiny pinprick of light was discovered, a competition was held to give it a name. Eleven-year-old Venetia Burney won with her suggestion of Pluto because the mysterious planet was so far away, like a God of the underworld. Walt Disney, capitalizing on all that excitement, named his goofy cartoon dog after the distant planet.

New Horizons, the size of a grand piano, is the fastest spacecraft that has ever been launched. It zipped through space and hurtled toward the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph (some 48,000 kph). On board is something really special – the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh. His name has been given to that huge white heart-shaped patch of “frost” in Pluto’s southern hemisphere – Tombaugh Regio. What it is and why it’s so white and large, NASA doesn’t know yet.

When New Horizons phoned home at 5:52 p.m. PDT Tuesday to announce its arrival and start sending data, standing ovations broke out at mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland. No doubt corks flew off champagne bottles too. But it will take upwards of 16 months for all of that data to be sent back to Earth. No high speed Internet out there. Data will come in at an agonizingly slow one kilobit per second. A kilobit (spacecraft communications speak) is only 125 bytes.

Pluto is the last in NASA’s $700 million quest to explore all the solar system’s planets. The first was the fly-by of Venus in 1962. Then, of note, Tuesday July 14th was the 50th anniversary of the first ever close fly-by of Mars by Mariner 4 in 1965. Already, New Horizons is millions of kilometres beyond Pluto and heading for the Kuiper belt, a debris field at the edge of the Solar System.

How cool is that?