The Pluto Perspective

Posted on July 9, 2020

Memories of an Amazing Encounter

Through the Camera Eye

Henry Throop

New Horizons science team member


I was member of the science team involved with observations of Pluto, but I was also "embedded" as one of several photographers documenting the mission from the inside. I carried my cameras around the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory every day for the two-plus months we were there during the summer of 2015: from the science discussion rooms and engineering offices, to the press conferences and the cafeterias.

New Horizons carried our instruments though the solar system, returning images and measurements of Pluto that we couldn't see ourselves. And since there are no people onboard, none of its discoveries would have happened without the scientists, engineers, managers, machinists and programmers who designed, built and operated the spacecraft on its 15-year, 3 billion mile trip from inception to Pluto. The incredible team created every step of the journey. I was able to document the emotions -- the tension, the excitement, the frustration, the euphoria -- as the hundreds of team members in Maryland traveled along with our spacecraft to Pluto.

Here are a few of my favorite images from the encounter:

On the day of closest approach, New Horizons was working hard, taking images for almost all of the 24 hours surrounding its flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. But it took a short break from its schedule to "phone home." At APL, we were gathered and anxiously awaiting that transmission around 9 p.m. EDT. NASA public affairs officer Dwayne Brown reacts as we heard from the spacecraft that it successfully navigated through the Pluto system, acquired its full set of data, and was outbound to the Kuiper Belt.

At just after 6 a.m. EDT on July 14, the team saw the high-resolution global image of Pluto for the first time. The team is doing geology on this body in real-time: "Hey, I think this is a mountain range over here. And look, there's a couple of craters in this dark patch, but they're getting filled in."

This wall in one of the science team work rooms listed each daily data downlink from the spacecraft and what new images would arrive. The communications team used the calendar to plan press releases, and the science team scheduled its sleep around the downlink schedule. The calendar lists a few early ideas for public image releases ('Pluto at different aspects,' 'Colorized versions,' 'Last system view,' 'Last full view of Pluto + Charon,' 'When will LEISA have anything to say?').

Charlene Christy was an inspiration for the name of Charon, discovered by her husband Jim Christy (U.S. Naval Observatory) in 1978. Here, Charlene and Jim watch in the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's Kossiakoff Center as the first high-resolution images of Charon are revealed on July 15, 2015. "I'm going to send this right now to my grandkids!" she told me.

(Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute/Henry Throop)

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