The New Horizons spacecraft was part of a program initiated in 2001 and was launched on January 19, 2006 to begin its approach and fly by of the Pluto system some nine years later on January 15, 2015. On July 14, 2015 it began it’s exploration of the dwarf planet, and this past week, 469 days hence on October 25, 2016 its final images of the July 14 exploration was received by NASA.
Some 50-Million gigabits of data from New Horizons have now traveled the 3.1-Billion miles back to Earth. Consider that: 50-Million giabits of data is the equivalent of 6.25-Million Gigabytes. Your couple year old notebook computer may have a 500-GB harddrive.
Consider the possibilities: For the first time in Human history, we’re seeing up close pictures of a terrestrial body more 3-Billion miles away from us. On that July day in 2015, something built on and launched from our little planet Earth soared 7,750 miles above the dwarf planet Pluto taking pictures. The distance between Boston and New Delhi, India is a little less than 7200 miles. New Horizons was about the radius of our planet away from Pluto.
Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, “third zone” of our solar system. In the early 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general – and Pluto-Charon in particular – among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for the coming decade. New Horizons is NASA’s mission to fulfill this objective.
We’ve learned Pluto is far more complex an environment than we’d imagined. Pluto and Charon combine into a “binary system,” and while relatively common in the galaxy, we’d never explored one. We have more information that suggests is more water ice on Pluto than we had thought and we know that the red cap at the north pole of Charon is trapped methane gas.
When I was growing up, I thought of Pluto as this strange, far flung rock of a planet, perhaps not unlike the Star Wars ice planet of Hoth. My boyhood imagination was captured by space and the thoughts of space travel. That there may be other worlds on which to put our feet down. We are still years, decades away perhaps, from landing a man on Mars – a grave disappointment for a middle aged man growing up with thoughts of intergalactic travel – but it’s so incredible to me to be able to see photographs of a planet so far away. It makes it so concrete and real that in this age of almost instantaneous communication that it could take over a year to send images from one place to another.
NASA describes this data as a treasure-trove. I submit its far greater than that; I submit that it is the cause of generations of people to look toward the sky and dream of what still further treasures lie beyond that 3.1-Billion miles waiting to be seen by us.