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.
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.
by Mark Daymont
Update from Space.com
After 85 years as a mystery, the surface of Pluto is finally coming into focus, with a new photo revealing towering ice mountains rising from its surprisingly youthful face.
NASA today unveiled the first close-up photos of Pluto and two of its five moons as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft, which buzzed the dwarf planet Tuesday (July 14) during a historic flyby. One revealed a mountain range rising 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) into Pluto's sky, along with a surface just 100 million years old at the most.
Another image captured evidence of recent geological activity on Charon, Pluto's largest moon. Yet another photo revealed the first good look at Hydra, one of Pluto's four smaller satellites. [Watch NASA Unveil New Pluto Photos (Video)]