NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on July 9, 2020
Anne J. Verbiscer
New Horizons assistant project scientist
University of Virginia
One of the most surprising moments of the Pluto flyby for me didn't come immediately after closest approach, but a few days later. I recall walking into the Geology and Geophysics Investigation team workroom at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on a Sunday morning, July 19, 2015. I looked at the image displayed on a monitor in the room. The same image appeared on several other monitors and laptops too. Here is that image (or one very much like it):
Close-up view of Pluto's Sputnik Planitia from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Sputnik Planitia is a bright basin filled with mostly nitrogen ice that can flow, much like a water-ice glacier on Earth. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute)
I wondered why everyone was looking at pictures of Antarctica, or a glacier on Earth, such as this:
Surface features on and surrounding the San Rafael Glacier in the Northern Patagonian Ice Field resemble those on Pluto's Sputnik Planitia. (Credit: Tullio et al. 2018)
Suddenly it dawned on me that they weren't looking at images of Earth, but of Pluto - and I was astounded. There wasn't a single crater to be seen in that amazing view. I instantly realized that Pluto was a world like no other and that we were in for a real treat with what was yet to come in the data still stored on the spacecraft.
What a privilege and honor it has been to have a front row seat for the past five years, watching this icy world reveal the secrets it has held since Clyde Tombaugh made his discovery 90 years ago.
Next: Phoning Home »