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Pluto probe phones home, is alive and healthy

New Horizons is already back to work and speeding away from the dwarf planet

New Horizons is alive and on its way to the inner Kuiper belt, according to NASA. The spacecraft sent back a signal at 8:53PM ET, confirming a successful completion of its flyby of Pluto. The news was announced in front of a packed house at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the location of New Horizons mission control. "We're in lock with telemetry with the spacecraft," Alice Bowman, the mission's operations manager, said from the control room.

The signal was a tiny packet of data — no images or scientific measurements were included. That’s because New Horizons can’t talk to Earth and make observations at the same time. "Any second transmitting information to Earth is a second looking away from Pluto," said Kimberly Ennico Smith, a deputy project scientist for New Horizons, as the spacecraft gave us a brief heads up to let us know it was still functioning before going back to its scientific mission.

"Today’s mission was just one more step on the journey of getting humans to Mars, because it gives us one more piece in the puzzle of our Solar System," said NASA administrator Charles Bolden, at a media-briefing-turned-celebration that immediately followed the announcement.

CHarles bolden

An emotional Charles Bolden addresses the crowd at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

The briefing felt less like a mission update and more like a rock concert — and the star was Alice Bowman. At one point, the guests and press began chanting her name. Bowman, the first female mission operations manager in the history of the Applied Physics Laboratory, likened the anxiety of waiting for New Horizons' signal to the struggles of parenting. "You have a lot of faith in your children, but sometimes they don’t do exactly what you want them to do," she said. The successful signal eased those tensions for Bowman, who said New Horizons is "on track and following the path that we’ve laid out for the spacecraft."

New Horizons’ next task will be linking up with Earth overnight. That communication, which will last several hours, will provide images 10 times the resolution of the ones we've already seen, and will also include information such as the color data from Charon and Pluto's other moons. Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, said the team nicknamed this downlink "The New York Times dataset, because we think it’s going to be pretty interesting."

There's a lot of good data coming tomorrow

Though the overwhelming odds were in favor of New Horizons, a July 4th software glitch raised tensions over the flyby, and the moments leading up to the transmission were stressful. The announcement of the "all clear" signal sparked an eruption of applause and a palpable air of relief.

Stern, who was in many ways the public face of the mission, never wavered in his confidence that the spacecraft was alive. He and other team scientists put the chance of debris impact at around 1 or 2 in 10,000 at a morning briefing. "You could fly hundreds of New Horizons through the system and expect them to survive," Stern said.

Alan Stern new horizons

Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, addresses the media.

New Horizons buzzed by Pluto at a distance of about 7,800 miles; the greatest dangers to the craft were dust and debris. What made the flyby dangerous was that it’s hard to see this stuff — if Pluto has rings of dust, they wouldn’t be as obvious as Saturn’s or Jupiter’s. Hitting even a tiny rock could have been fatal to the mission. As New Horizons speeds toward the inner Kuiper belt, the spacecraft will look back into the sunlight and try to study the dust surrounding Pluto.

"Rings are exciting for us to do scientifically, but the same dust there is a hazard to the spacecraft," said Henry Throop of the Planetary Science Institute, who helped work out New Horizons' hazard avoidance strategy.

The possibility of a planetary dust cloud is only one of the mysteries that researchers are hoping to unravel. Scientists want to learn more about Pluto’s geology; they aim to find out what makes up its icy cap, its cliffs and mountains, the dark equatorial belt, and the lighter, heart-shaped plain. And that’s not all: Charon, Pluto’s biggest moon, has mysteries of its own.

More information will be available in the coming months, as New Horizons begins beaming back the data it gathers. New pictures and scientific results will be released in the coming days, but the bulk of the data won’t start to come in until September, and it will take 16 months to receive everything New Horizons observed — meaning we won’t have a complete data set from the Pluto system until October 2016. Or, as Stern put it: "The best is yet to come."

The best is yet to come

After that, the picture is still unclear. New Horizons has enough fuel to last until the 2030s, but requires a mission extension to keep the staff with it. At the end of the briefing, a nine-year-old girl (one of a handful in attendance who were born the year New Horizons was launched) asked the panel a precocious question about this topic: "What is the extended mission goal?" John Grunsfeld, NASA's science lead, slyly dodged the question. New Horizons, he said, will go "where no New Horizons spacecraft has gone before."