Science & Astronomy
18. July 2015

The last couple of days have been nothing short of amazing. Until only a week ago, Pluto had been literally just a small blob of pixels to humanity since its discovery eighty-five years ago by Clyde Tombaugh, but then New Horizons made its approach to the former planet. Even before the actual flyby, Pluto and its Moon Charon were transformed from pixels to detailed photos, which brought many surprises and some poignant visual allusions, like the now famous heart – which also looks like a certain dog! It’s been incredible and maybe the most exciting thing in uncrewed space exploration since the Voyager missions in the 70s and 80s!

On Tuesday, the day of the flyby, NASA revealed the first really high-resolution closeups of both Pluto, which were even more stunning than the previous less detailed images. Then the flyby happened and there was always the chance that New Horizons would get hit by some small micrometeorites or other debris scattered around Pluto – but the spacecraft called back just as planned with a short burst of data on Wednesday night, which did not include any images yet. The big reveal came on Wednesday, when the team released an amazing closeup from the “heart region” – now named Tombaugh Reggio after Pluto’s discoverer – which revealed vast mountains of ice, but curiously no craters.

Charon turned out to be an even bigger surprise, because Pluto’s moon turned out to have a topography like no-one had expected in their wildest dreams. Yesterday, another closeup was revealed with icy plains near the location of the frozen mountains, which were also shown as a stunning animated flyover generated from the still images and the topographical data. Something that was mentioned at the press conference was, unfortunately, that the bi-daily raw images release on the New Horizons website will stop because of time constrains and raw images will only be released on a bi-weekly basis.

Not only images, but also a lot of other scientific data was received. There was the astonishing discovery that there is frozen carbon monoxide on Pluto, that the planet has a tail of ionized gas and a first look at Pluto’s atmosphere – and this is only the beginning. For a much better summary, check out this Wired article about the scientific results and also keep an eye on Emily Lakdawalla’s blog – she has not yet written up yesterday’s conference, but probably will do so today. The memory banks of New Horizon are full of science data and many more images, but downloading them will take many months – a couple of more images are expected this weekend, but then the spacecraft with switch to a low-speed mode which will enable it to transmit more science data. Image transmissions will only be resumed on September 14th. when during a 10-week-period a complete set of images will be transmitted in compressed, but still highres form – the lossless compressed versions of the images will be send later, which will take a full year to complete!

So much for the scientific aspect of the mission, but the human angle has been even more interesting thanks to the involvement of social media. Many of the New Horizons team including its chief investigator and instigator Alan Stern have embraced Twitter as a means of quick communication not only in one direction – there has been a lot of interaction between the science team and and journalists, scientists and just everyone who asked them reasonable questions. or just wanted to have some fun, in which especially Alex Parker indulged a lot.

Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society was one of those who chatted a lot with the scientists over Twitter and on site while also asking them pretty hard-hitting questions – as a former planetary geologist and now journalist and public outreach specialist she always knows what’s going on and if she doesn’t she’s doing her best to find out!  Amy “Vintage Space” Shira Teitel actually worked for NASA on the New Horizons media team, creating the enormously popular Pluto in a Minute series and also made some Periscope broadcast, especially during the Flyby and Call-Home moments, wonderfully capturing the jubilant mood in the New Horizons Headquarters. Also noteworthy is, of course, Pamela Gay, the director of CosmoQuest, who was not on-site, but still did a marvellous job of spreading information via Twitter, in a couple of spontaneous Periscope broadcasts and also on the CosmoQuest blog.

The days of waiting for space exploration discoveries like this to appear in the news, newspapers and magazines are thankfully long over. I prefer it this way – it’s almost like having been there and even though I never left my home for it, the “Days of Pluto and Charon” this week were a very memorable occasion comparable to the Mars rover landings and the Rosetta and Philae mission – and it’s far from over yet! Stay tuned, there are many more exciting things to come from New Horizons.

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