Michelle Collins Jul 15, 2015

Humans, rejoice! Because yesterday was an historic day! For it was at 7:49 AM EDT that we finally explored the only unexplored world* in our Solar system: PLUTO! The dwarf planet everyone loves to talk about :) NASA's New Horizons spacecraft successfully completed its flyby of the Pluto system, and now we will get the clearest, bestest images of Pluto and its 5 moons (4 of which we've never been able to see as more than points of light before), as well as learning all about the geology if the surface, and the physics of its tenuous yet extended atmosphere. Huzzah for space exploration!

This is a big flipping** deal! The NASA New Horizons mission set out 9 years ago, travelled 3 billion miles - swinging by Jupiter on its way - and arrived at its destination travelling 31,000 mph. And its arrival had to be so precise, hitting a box in space just 60x90 miles within 100 seconds of its predicted arrival time, else it would have missed Pluto altogether. The sheer feat of planning, engineering and space savvy needed to achieve this is MIND BOGGLINGLY AWESOME. But, the New Horizons team is filled with mind boggling awesome people, so naturally, they pulled it off. And the results are stunning. Pre-New Horizons, the best image we had of our most distant neighbour was a blurry mess, taken with Hubble. But NOW we can see frozen hearts (see cover photo), mysterious dark spots the size of Missouri, impact craters, cliffs, chasms, whales, donuts...  and more! The heart is informally being named Tombaugh Reggio after the man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh.  

And today, we got our first, super high resolution image of Pluto's surface. And we see MOUNTAINS! And a YOUNG SURFACE! Pluto must be active! AND it has water ice! And IT IS BEAUTIFUL***

High resolution image of Pluto's surface

And check out this beautiful image of Pluto's largest moon, which is ALSO active :D

Charon! Imaged by New Horizons

See more from NASA here.

And the annotated xkcd comic of Pluto :)

xkcd's annotated Pluto

The total amount of data taken on Pluto will take around 16 months to be transferred to Earth, and we'll be getting more and more high definition images like those above AND BETTER over the coming days and weeks.

There's not enough space here to post all the amazingness, but I highly recommend you visit the NASA New Horizons website, and the Johns Hopkins APL one too. Also, check out the #PlutoFlyby hashtag for images (both silly and scientific) information and general Pluto-related excitement. And please enjoy the fun facts and tweets below.


Fun facts about New Horizons:

The maximum download speed of data from New Horizons is 4000 bps.For reference, my home internet has an average speed of 75 MILLION bps.

Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and is the only American to have discovered a (former) planet. Some of his ashes are on New Horizons, and sailed by Pluto yesterday

When Pluto was first discovered in 1930, we thought it was more massive than the Earth! We were quite, quite wrong.

New Horizons also flew by Jupiter and took a STUNNING set of images of a volcano erupting on the surface of its moon, Io. Click on this link. CLICK ON IT!

After flying by Jupiter (and using its gravity to knock 3 years off its trip), New Horizons went into hibernation for 7 years. It awoke on 6th December 2014 to the sound of Russell Watsons "Where my heart will take me", the incredibly cheesey, ridiculous theme song from Star Trek Enterprise. No joke. I've been singing this ALL week :)

* code for: it's not a planet now, but was one when we launched New Horizons, so lets call it a world to avoid the planet debate (I'm on the non-planet side)

** I was going to use a stronger word here... because this is AWESOME^infinity

*** Still not a planet though :)