Thursday 16 July 2015

Pluto flyby: Nasa's New Horizons probe sends signal to Earth

Pluto may have been demoted from the big-planet table but on Wednesday, it was the dwarf planet's time in the spotlight. 
After travelling more than 5 billion kilometres in 9.5 years, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft survived its closest encounter with Pluto, coming within 12,500 kilometres of the distant, icy world.
On Wednesday morning, a signal from the spacecraft, which is the size of a grand piano, was received on Earth, confirming the probe had whizzed passed the planet about 58,000km/h.
The last frontier: New Horizons survived its encounter with Pluto.
The last frontier: New Horizons survived its encounter with Pluto. Photo: AP
Engineers at NASA mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland cheered as operations manager Alice Bowman received word that the probe had gathered detailed scientific data on a region of the solar system that has never been explored until now.
At a press conference later, the visibly overwhelmed Ms Bowman compared her anxious wait to hear from the spacecraft to the experience of waiting for a teenagerto return home after a late night out.
"You have a lot of faith in your children but they don't always do what you expect," she said.
"In this instance the spacecraft did exactly what it was supposed to do."
NASA administrator Charles Bolden took the voyage's success as an opportunity to spruik the United States' space credentials. 
"We have visited every planet in our solar system. There is no other nation in the world that has the capability of doing that."  Pluto's demotion to dwarf planet didn't seem to bother him.
One of the mission's goals is to uncover the mysteries of faraway worlds such as Pluto, which are relics of the material that formed the building blocks of the larger planets, including Earth. 
Lewis Ball, the director of astronomy and space science at the CSIRO, said there was still a lot scientists don't know about Pluto, its moons and similar distant worlds of the Kuiper belt, a region beyond Neptune that contains as many as 10 million objects bigger than one kilometre across.
"Reaching Pluto and these most distant parts of our solar system has been a priority for space science for years because of the fact that it holds those building blocks of our solar system that have been stored in a deep freeze," said Dr Ball.
"What we're hoping is that it will give us information about the origin and evolution of the Earth and early planets in the solar system," he said.
The first images from New Horizons' closest encounter are expected on Thursday morning. It takes more than 4½ hours for data to travel one way from Pluto to Earth.
The mission's principal investigator, Alan Stern, said the science "data pass" on Wednesday evening would also include information from the probe's spectrometers  and details of Pluto's moons.
"It's something we've called the New York Times data set, because we think it will be pretty interesting," he said.
Pluto has five known moons but there is a reasonable chance New Horizons will uncover more.​
The head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, said the mission's journey of discovery was only just beginning.
"If you thought today was big, wait until tomorrow and the next day," he said.
An excited Mr Stern said: "My prediction was that we would find something wonderful, and we did. This is proof that good things really do come in small packages."
The "something wonderful" he referred to was a remarkable "heart" feature on the surface of Pluto that dominated the most detailed images captured yet.

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