Pluto in focus defies odds
AN unmanned NASA spacecraft whizzed by Pluto and survived its close encounter with the distant dwarf planet after a journey of 4.8 billion kilometres over nearly 10 years.
Moving faster than any spacecraft ever built at a speed of about 50,000km/ h, the nuclear- powered New Horizons – about the size of a baby grand piano – snapped pictures of Pluto as it hurtled by on autopilot.
The photos will reveal details of Pluto never seen before in the history of space travel.
Some 13 hours after the fly- by, applause broke out in mission control at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Centre outside Washington, as the spacecraft made its “phone- home” contact with Earth and all systems were reported to be intact.
“We have a healthy spacecraft,” said mission operations manager Alice Bowman. “We are outbound from Pluto.”
The confirmation eased anxiety among scientists who were waiting all day to find out if the $ US700 million ($ A939 million) New Horizons survived the chaotic Kuiper Belt, the region beyond Neptune described as a “shooting gallery” of cosmic debris.
NASA had said there was a one in 10,000 chance that the spacecraft could be lost, and all it would take would be “a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice”.
The spacecraft passed 12,470km from Pluto’s surface just before 10pm on Tuesday AEST.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said scientists can now look forward to a “16- month data waterfall” that will help scientists write whole new textbooks about Pluto.
“We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, an endeavour started under President ( John F.) Kennedy more than 50 years ago, continuing today under President ( Barack) Obama,” Mr Stern said.
Mr Obama cheered the mission on Twitter.
“Pluto just had its first visitor! Thanks @ NASA – it’s a great day for discovery and American leadership,” the US President wrote.
Never before has a spacecraft ventured into the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft launched in 2006, the same year that Pluto was downgraded to “dwarf planet” status due to the celestial body’s small size.
New Horizons is the first spacecraft to fly past Pluto and its seven scientific instruments aim to reveal upclose details of the surface, geology and atmosphere of Pluto and its five moons.
Already, scientists have learnt that Pluto is 20- 30km larger than previously thought, with a radius of 1184km. Scientists have also confirmed the existence of a polar ice cap and found nitrogen escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere. “This is truly a hallmark in human history,” said NASA head John Grunsfeld.
SHEER DELIGHT: Ecstatic NASA and project staff react after the close approach to Pluto.