NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on July 9, 2020
New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Investigation team member
University of Arizona
My favorite part of the encounter was the seconds after we met Pluto up-close for the first time, on the morning of July 14, 2015. I particularly like to look back at photos from that point, as they record that the room was dark around us, and the scientists were alone with our wonder and the new Pluto image.
That personal meeting, with an object never before imaged up close, is exactly what I imagined when I was 6 years old and decided that I wanted to be a planetary scientist. (Well, I didn't know the name for it, but at the time I said: "something spacey, with rocks.")
That's why this is my favorite photo from the encounter. It was entirely spontaneous; I'm in the middle of the photo foreground, and we were all discussing the Pluto that we'd just met seconds before! I achieved my life's ambition at this specific moment, and to have it candidly captured on film is something for which I'll always be grateful.
The image of the flyby that will forever stick in my mind is the photograph taken by Michael Soluri of the science team's reaction immediately following the big reveal of the full-frame Pluto image on the morning of July 14, 2015. The moment when this great enigma of the solar system was finally laid bare was inevitably going to be highly emotional. But when we saw how phenomenally and unexpectedly strange Pluto looked, this emotion merged with intense scientific curiosity to generate an unforgettable buzz, the kind of feeling that we live for as scientists.
This picture excellently conveys the essence of discovery that filled that moment, with arms pointing every which way at Pluto's bounty of wonders. The picture is also particularly special to me because in a way it summarized my journey in planetary science. I had known Dr. Veronica Bray (on the left, in the foreground) since we were studying for our degrees a decade earlier. Dr. Paul Schenk (closest to the screen) had mentored me in my first postdoctorate assignment, during which I had met Dr. Kelsi Singer (to Paul's right). The other team members I had only met within the previous few years.
To share this experience with multiple generations of friends and colleagues created a terrific sense of unity and belonging. I look forward to more discoveries in my scientific career, but I doubt any future occasion will thrill me in quite the way this one did.
(Credit: Michael Soluri)
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