New Horizons' historic encounter with Pluto

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A signal received from the New Horizons spacecraft shows that it survived its historic encounter with Pluto.

Data in its first call home since Tuesday's flyby suggest the spacecraft experienced no upsets as it hurtled past the icy world at 14km/s (31,000mph).

The signal came through a giant dish in Madrid, Spain - part of a Nasa network of communications antennas.

The message took four hours 25 minutes to traverse 4.7 billion km of space.


The tension mounted as scientists and engineers at mission headquarters in Laurel, Maryland, waited for telemetry information. So there was joy and relief when the signal was received at 01:52 BST; team members cheered, hugged each other and waved American flags.

"We are in lock with telemetry from the spacecraft," said mission operations manager Alice Bowman as confirmation was received.

"We have a healthy spacecraft, we have recorded data from the Pluto system, and we are outbound from Pluto."

A few minutes later, she added: "I can't express how I feel. It's just like we planned it!"

Nasa's administrator Charles Bolden said: "With this mission, we have visited every single planet in the Solar System."

The agency's science chief John Grunsfeld commented: "This is a tremendous moment in human history," adding: "The spacecraft is full of images and we can't wait."

Operations manager Alice Bowman confirmed that New Horizons' solid state recorder should be full of data.

"The expected number of segments on that recorder had been used. That tells us that that data has been collected on the spacecraft," she explained.

The signal received on Wednesday morning contained only engineering data, and was designed to tell controllers whether the flyby sequence had been carried out properly. The first high-resolution pictures from the flyby should be downlinked later on Wednesday.

Ralph Semmel, director of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where mission control is based, congratulated the mission team.

"What has Pluto given us? Whales, doughnuts, and a heart," he said, referring to informal names for surface features in images taken during the spacecraft's approach.

Team members had expressed confidence the flyby would go well, but there was a very small possibility that New Horizons could be lost as it sped through the Pluto system.

Any stray icy debris would have been lethal if it had collided with the spacecraft at its 14km/s velocity .

James Christy, who discovered Pluto's moon Charon, joined relatives of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the dwarf planet itself in 1930, at mission control to witness receipt of the signal.

 

Facts about New Horizons

 

It’s the fastest spacecraft ever launched

New Horizons entered directly into an Earth and Sun escape trajectory after launching on 19 January 2006 at a velocity of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph), making it the fastest spacecraft to ever leave Earth orbit, 100 times faster than a jetliner.

 

It’s now the closest manmade object to Pluto (and it’s getting closer)

Until 2 December 2011 the Voyager 1 spacecraft held the “record” for the closest approach to Pluto, a mammoth 10.58 times further than the Earth-Sun distance. New Horizons is now within this record.

 

Its journey is almost equal to 32 trips between the Earth and the Sun

On 14 July 2015 – 3,462 days after launching and having travelled 4.76 billion kilometres (2.96 billion miles) – New Horizons will become the first probe ever to flyby Pluto. It will observe the once ninth planet of the Solar System for several weeks.

 

It could hit a hidden Plutonian moon

Five known moons are known to currently be in orbit around Pluto, but three of these were discovered in just the last couple of years. Pluto may have more unknown hidden moons, or other objects like asteroids, that could pose a threat to New Horizons as it approaches.

 

Its mission will continue beyond Pluto

New Horizons will use Pluto’s gravity to give it an additional speed boost to make its way into the outer Solar System. Here it will observe Kuiper Belt Objects, if there are any around, until 2020. The mission will officially end in 2026.

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