A closeup of the Pluto's "heart." Credit: NASA

Initial Pluto Flyby Results Awe and Inspire

Few space missions are hyped like New Horizons was leading up to its July 14 encounter with Pluto. But when showtime finally arrived, NASA and its grand piano-sized probe delivered, and then some.

On July 15, the first breathtaking images of the heretofore unseen world began arriving. These images — a close-up of a tiny patch of Pluto, a full-disk image of its primary moon, Charon, and a pixilated view of the oddly shaped moon Hydra — have already validated the decision to go to the solar system’s most distant planetary system.

Pluto. Credit: NASA

New Horizons provided tantalizing hints of what was to come as it entered the home stretch of its nine-and-a-half-year, 5 billion-kilometer journey. But the best of those snapshots, released July 14, paled in comparison with what followed a day later: a dramatic first-ever look at the complex landscape, or more accurately ice-scape, of Pluto, and of Charon.

The dearth of craters on Pluto and Charon, at least in the initial images, suggest both are geologically active, or at least were until relatively recently, although the underlying forces remain mysterious. The Pluto close-up showed what scientists believe to be water-ice mountains 3,000 meters high.

NASA has pulled off other spectacular exploration feats in the recent past, the landing of the 1-ton Curiosity rover on Mars being the most obvious example. But this is different. Mars was already fairly well reconnoitered by the time Curiosity was lowered to the Martian surface using a contraption called the Sky Crane.

Pluto and Charon, by contrast, had never been seen in anything remotely resembling the detail captured by New Horizons. Previously the best pictures, taken by the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, revealed little more than color variations.

This is discovery at its purest, the promise of which has driven humanity’s urge to explore over the ages. The fact that the flyby has received such widespread media coverage — what with so much else going on in the world — and captivated so much of the general public testifies to the continued allure of space exploration.

Charon and a detailed slice of its surface. Credit: NASA
Charon and a detailed slice of its surface. Credit: NASA

Given that Pluto was the last major unexplored body of the solar system, New Horizons will be a tough act to follow. But certainly there are many other worlds within reach that, while already surveyed to some extent, offer possibilities that are plenty enticing. Certain moons of Jupiter and Saturn come to mind.

In the meantime, the unveiling of Pluto and its moons is only beginning: The initial data dump from New Horizons’ seven sensors is slated to continue for a few more days, with more data expected to trickle in over the next year or so. Scientists have several years of work ahead to unlock the Pluto’s deeper secrets, the ones that didn’t reveal themselves in the initial set of photos and spectroscopy data.

Then there’s the extended New Horizons mission, in which the probe will visit one of two other candidate bodies in the Kuiper Belt. The extended mission still requires approval from NASA’s senior review board, but should be a shoo in given what we’ve seen so far.

Here’s to the people of NASA, the Applied Physics Laboratory and all of the organizations and companies that helped — and continue to help — make this happen for a job superbly done. Here’s also to getting to know the solar system’s most mysterious planetary system in the days and months ahead, and to whatever might be humanity’s next great accomplishment in space exploration.