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July 31, 2014

Discoveries and Mysteries

Richard BinzelRichard Binzel
New Horizons co-investigator

It is spine-tingling to be on the threshold of discovery for the most ambitious and farthest-exploring planetary encounter ever flown. A first time happens only once. There was the first time Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens, spotting craters on the moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the amazing rings of Saturn. All of those findings transformed our view of the solar system, and New Horizons could be similarly transformational.

Pluto is a world that has been only barely glimpsed with the Earth’s most capable telescopes. It almost feels like a fuzzy curtain is about to be pulled back next year, allowing Pluto to become a real place, with real features and characteristics that will define an entirely new region of our planetary system.

For many of us who have studied Pluto for decades and have had a role in making the New Horizons mission become a reality, standing on the threshold of revelation is surreal. Is this moment, one we have worked for so hard and for so long, really here? Pinch me!

When people ask me, “What do you expect to see?” I simply answer that I do not know. Quite deliberately, I try not to have a preconceived view because nature is always smarter and more complex than we can imagine. All that I know is that we will be surprised, amazed and befuddled. For all of us on New Horizons it will be our Olympic moment, set in motion almost 85 years ago by Clyde Tombaugh’s moment of discovery in 1930. There in the spotlight, with the public riding along with us, will come a myriad of questions as we unveil this new planetary system: What do you see? How do you explain it?

The thrill of discovery for me is in all the answers and new mysteries to be born.

Richard Binzel, a member of the New Horizons science team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an expert in planetary photometry, spectroscopy and mapping. He is crafting plans for New Horizons' mapping of Pluto and coordinating an Earth-based observation campaign to coincide with the spacecraft's July 2015 flight through the Pluto system. (Photo credit: Barry Hetherington)