Almost a month ago, NASA received a message from 310 million miles away from Earth. It was their comet probe, Philae, checking in after nearly seven months of silence, sending home never-before-seen, up-close photos of the comet that it landed on. It was a massive achievement from NASA and held the record longest distance a message has ever travelled across the solar system. Until now.
Only 112 years after the Wright Brothers got their flying contraption off the ground, NASA has succeeded in sending a satellite called New Horizons into the farthest reaches of our solar system. Traveling almost three billion miles away to the lonely outskirts of space, New Horizons passed by Pluto last week and sent us home some spectacular up-close photos of the planet. This is an achievement nine and a half years in the making and it is the farthest reaching achievement that mankind has yet to make. You can check out all of the photos on NASA’s New Horizons website here.
Pluto has been transformed from a blurry dot to a dynamic world with varying geography, with mountains as tall as the Rockies and—surprisingly—no craters. There are areas that could show signs of churning plate tectonics and the possibility of ice volcanoes! All of this new information could provide clues to how planets form and even to the origins to the building blocks of life.
“I don’t think any one of us could have imagined that this could have been a better toy store,” said S. Alan Stern, the mission’s principle investigator, in a press conference last week. William Grundy, another investigator with the team, chimed in: “This is what we came for.” And Catherine Olkin, the deputy project scientist added, “This exceeds what we came for.”
A day before the press conference, New Horizons sent back its first batch of photographs of the planet, highlighting a bright heart-shaped stretch of land. The newer batch of photos zoomed in on the lower part of this heart-shaped area and, according to the New York Times, gave NASA quite a few surprises.
The pictures showed a very rugged topography—mountains of frozen water (not rock) reaching nearly 11,000 feet into the sky. A second surprise was that there were no signs of craters on Pluto’s surface. “We have not yet found a single impact crater in this image,” said Dr. Spencer. New Horizons also was able to take some pictures of Pluto’s only moon, Charon, which featured a very dark region towards its northern hemisphere that has been informally dubbed, “Mordor.”
Speaking of naming, Dr. Spencer also announced that the heart-shaped region on Pluto would be named the Tombaugh Regio, named after Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930 (‘Regio’ is Latin for region).
To celebrate the mission’s success, members of the team held up posters of a stamp the US Postal Service released in 1991, which read, “Pluto: Not Yet Explored.” The words ‘Not Yet’ were crossed out. “This is truly a hallmark in human history,” said John M. Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate.
After Pluto, New Horizons will plunge deeper into space, exploring the region known as the Kuiper belt, a region billions of miles away from Pluto which may contain more icy worlds and possibly asteroids the size of solar systems. Who knows what we will find outside our small corner of the universe? We’ll never know unless we try!