The Pluto Perspective

Posted on July 9, 2020

Memories of an Amazing Encounter

Moments of Discovery

Paul Schenk

New Horizons Geology and Geophysics Investigation team member

Lunar and Planetary Institute/USRA

My strongest memories of the "Pluto Summer" were of the building anticipation during the first two weeks of July 2015. We simply had no idea what Pluto (or indeed the Kuiper Belt itself) had in store for us. Plus, we were nervous about how successful New Horizons was going to be.

So when we gathered late on July 14, to see whether the spacecraft would "phone home" and complete its mission, we were confident yet edgy. It was such a relief and a release to get that signal, but for many of us the wait was not quite over. We would still have to gather the next morning, this time for the first close-approach images from the flyby to be transmitted back. Would they be clear or smeared? Would the exposures be correct? And, most critically, would they be on target?

Back in our work center at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, we waited for the images to crawl onto the screens; several of us worked to see who could get them first off the "pipeline" that carried them from the New Horizons science and mission operations centers. Then, bamm! There it was - the center of Pluto's "heart" (what would be named Sputnik Planitia) right where it was supposed to be. We immediately got swept into the debate of trying to figure out what we were looking at but those moments of discovery remain in our memories.

Paul Schenk, seated at center, and members of the New Horizons science team discuss the latest images of Pluto at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, in July 2015. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute/Henry Throop)

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