After a decade and more than 3 billion miles of space travel, the New Horizon space probe has swung past Pluto, closing in at only 8,000 miles from the dwarf planet’s surface and traveling over 30,000 mph. The probe will now spend the next 16 months or more transmitting all the data it collected about Pluto back to Earth at 700 bits per second. This is a testimony to NASA’s and the nation’s engineering and a boon to astronomers studying Pluto. There’s little doubt that our knowledge of Pluto and the solar system will increase by several orders of magnitude over the next few years.
For example, colorized images of Pluto (left) and its moon, Charon, reveal that the two celestial objects are not simple ice balls. The surfaces are made up of different, distinct regions including ice caps, regions of hydrocarbons, and a dark red area covered in tholins (organic compounds such as methane and ethane that have been exposed and metamorphosed by ultraviolet rays from the sun).
Close-ups of Pluto show 11,000-ft. ice mountains that scientists are currently at a loss to explain. There are also regions that appear to be still geologically active.
There will undoubtedly be more discoveries over the next 16 months as the $700-million mission continues.
For a rundown of the technical details behind the New Horizon and its trip to Pluto, check out this article.