History was made this week; the kind that changes curricula. New Horizons gave us our first real look at Pluto and its moons. As Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, described it to me, "We turned a point of light into a planet, and we did it like that" — a declarative statement he accented with an inhumanly loud finger snap.
That's catchy, but boiling down the New Horizons mission to 15 words sort of obscures the magnitude of the accomplishment. New Horizons was the fastest object to leave Earth when it escaped our planet's atmosphere at more than 36,000 miles per hour in 2006. Nine years later, it passed Pluto at a distance of just 7,800 miles, threading the needle through a target window less than 100 miles wide. And, somehow, all the science being done by the seven instruments onboard only consumes 28 watts of power.
All this bred a contagious excitement that consumed the people on campus at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the headquarters for New Horizons. Each day, guests and media cornered scientists in hallways to ask them questions like "What’s with that whale shape?" The scientists themselves were so excited that they were positing new theories in the middle of media briefings about fresh data. Even one of the NASA TV camera operators couldn't resist shooting a double thumbs up to the crowd while whispering, "This is exciting!" on a quiet set.
"This is so exciting!"
The flyby has so far been an unmitigated success, and we will hopefully have a long time to revel in it — NASA won't be done downloading all the data from New Horizons until October of 2016. Beyond that, the mission's future is unclear. The team wants to go to another object in the Kuiper belt, but a mission extension requires funding.
I asked Stern about an equally difficult task: sustaining the public excitement that was stirred up over the last month. "Most people lead busy lives," he said. "They’ll sort of check a box: 'Pluto’s been explored, it’s really complicated, it looks like a planet to me.' But, you know, our goal this week was to show how exploration rocks, how exciting it can be."