Pluto in fo­cus de­fies odds

Townsville Bulletin - - CLASSIFIEDS -

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.

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