NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
Posted on July 9, 2020
New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Investigation team affiliate
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
At the time of the Pluto flyby – on July 14, 2015 - I was still a Ph.D. student. Not long after closest approach the first three close-up images of tiny sections of Pluto came back to Earth, covering the southern portion of Pluto's icy "heart" feature, eventually named Sputnik Planitia, and the terrain just below.
The New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Investigation team was working out of a large conference room at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. As most team members were digesting images showing the smooth "heart" of Sputnik, I was downloading the next image in the queue. The image wasn't even fully downloaded before I could see what looked like mountains. Mountains! On Pluto!
I announced to the room, "There are mountains on Pluto!" No one seemed to hear me. I announced it again. Same response. Then someone pointed to my computer and said, "Look at Kirby's computer! There are mountains on Pluto!" At last, my discovery was vindicated. I like to say that my "humble brag" is that, as far as I can tell, I'm the first person to discover mountains on Pluto.
Overall, the whole adventure of New Horizons flying by Pluto was wonderful, amazing and surreal. I feel fortunate to have experienced it first-hand, especially so early in my career. Discovery from space exploration is the best.
Processed in two different ways, these images show how Pluto's bright, high-altitude atmospheric haze produces a twilight that softly illuminates the surface before sunrise and after sunset - allowing the sensitive cameras on New Horizons to see details (like mountains) in nighttime regions that would otherwise be invisible. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
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