This is it: We’ve made it to Pluto, and what a fascinating place it is. Tuesday morning’s true-color, full-disk image taken by the New Horizons probe is destined to be the textbook image for decades to come, at least. It’s 1,000 times better than any image we could capture from Earth.
Scientists were ecstatic.
And there’s nothing better than excited scientists.
The mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, said the moment was a historic one for all of humanity. "We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the solar system," Stern said at a NASA press conference. In that proud moment, some scientists waved American flags and chanted “USA!” though many noted that this was an international effort, and the atmosphere in the room was more like a giddy sleepover than a display of American scientific triumph.
The flag waving mostly occurred when we were thanking the U.S. taxpayers who paid for this mission for all of humankind <3— Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) July 14, 2015
FWIW v few ppl here think this is about the U.S. Chanting was limited to a tiny tiny part of the room. & ppl were actively not participating— Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) July 14, 2015
Bc of way NASA organized this event, team members are sitting w/ family and friends Words cannot express how thankful I am for these moments— Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) July 14, 2015
Still, our exploration of Pluto includes a distinctly American story—it was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, who grew up in Kansas. The New Horizons spacecraft carries some of his ashes.
Hey so is it too early to suggest that the big heart on Pluto -- whatever it turns out to be -- be named Tombaugh?— Mike Brown (@plutokiller) July 13, 2015
Slate’s Phil Plait already posted his initial thoughts, and he will be writing more throughout the week as data streams in. The first emotional, sleep-deprived impressions of the image from other Pluto scientists were full of questions, but immediate interest centered its prominent heart-shaped bright patch.
The brown stuff at the equator really, really reminds me of Iapetus; but then what the heck is the "heart" -- what is it doing there?— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) July 14, 2015
At the left side of the disk are a lot of linear features -- it's not clear to me at the moment what those are.— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) July 14, 2015
The bumpy area at the right side of the disk is really striking. I can't think of an analog for that.— Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) July 14, 2015
As much as the bright terrain looks boring at that scale, it really is the most bizarre. I'm glad our highest resolution stuff is it.— Jason Perry (@volcanopele) July 14, 2015
Pluto is BEAUTIFUL. I knew it would be. We've never gone somewhere new and been disappointed. We should go more places #fundplanetary— Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) July 14, 2015
One of the things I love about Pluto's heart is that it makes Pluto identifiable in simple sketches.... also look.... Pluto -> (<3)— Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) July 14, 2015
The spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto came at 7:49 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday, but it’s so busy and so far away, we won’t get the really high-resolution stuff until later in the evening. New Horizons is actually officially out of Earth contact for most of Tuesday as it focuses on data collection. Stern and his team are eager to catch a glimpse of the “I survived” signal expected about 13 hours after its closest approach.
Since Pluto will be mostly in shadow after the probe’s closest approach, the flyby images themselves will be detailed strips with 10 times the resolution of Tuesday morning’s image and extremely interesting to scientists, but probably not as stunning as this one. In one planned image, Pluto will appear as a thin crescent with the Earth and the Sun as distant points of light.
The high res stuff will sweep across the left side of the heart and the crazy circle thing that I want to know more about!— Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) July 14, 2015
The part of NH I’m most excited for is the occultation data from Alice. It well tell us whether Pluto has haze. And how much.— Sarah Hörst (@PlanetDr) July 14, 2015
It’ll take 16 months for New Horizons to send back all the data it’s taking—a “waterfall,” according to Stern. And at Tuesday morning’s press conference, Stern revealed he’s already thinking about the next Pluto mission:
Update, 11:25 a.m.: Video of mission scientists' reactions to the moment of New Horizons' closest approach is now available: