Pluto: A mystery planet no longer |

Pluto: A mystery planet no longer

Astrid Aguilar
Special to The Aspen Times
Flags wave at Johns Hopkins APL in MD as the New Horizons spacecraft passes by Pluto following a 9-year voyage, exactly 50 years after the Mariner spacecraft imaged Mars.
Astrid Aguilar/Special to The Aspen Times |

Give me a “P”! Give me an “L”! PL – it’s the planetary symbol for the notorious dwarf-planet Pluto, and Houston, the big “PL” has been conquered. Strange, distant and seemingly unknowable, Pluto has long been fated by its name to a type of distant underworld, unreachable in the darkness at the edge of the solar system.

But at 7:49 a.m. EST on July 14, a full 72 seconds ahead of its original scheduled encounter, the unmanned New Horizons spacecraft lifted the shroud. Pluto is a mystery planet no longer. Inside Central Command at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, sheer exaltation rose from every corner, above the waves of small American flags held high and misty-eyed, sleep-deprived space scientists who glowed with disbelief, for the day had come after all.

The countdown clock shown from above, and a last-minute space launch-style countdown ­— joyfully reminiscent of New Year’s Eve — demanded more flag waving as Chief Mission Scientist and Principal Investigator Alan Stern shouted “T-minus three (beep), T-minus two (beep) T-minus one …” briefly anointing us space voyagers as we witnessed the culmination of this spectacularly sophisticated and complicated mission.

History was made right there and then, 9 years and 3 billion miles on. Stern of Boulder’s Southwest Research Institute, has sought to present humanity with a close-up of Pluto for a very long time. The mission’s top scientist directed the operation in partnership with Johns Hopkins APL and NASA. Carbondale resident and author/astronomer David Aguilar led the mission’s science writers team.

“The U.S. is the only nation to have now visited every planet in the solar system”, Aguilar said. We’ve truly kicked open the doorway to the outer solar system”. Fastest and farthest, the grand-piano sized unmanned spacecraft will send data and images back for several months to come. Initial images revealed canyons, craters and snow on Pluto. Yes, Aspenites, real snow.

Stern predicts that “data will rain down” in the coming days and weeks, and that “it may sound like science fiction right now, but it’s not. This data is transforming our knowledge about the beginnings of our solar system, and this mission marks the last check in the reconnaissance of planetary exploration.”

On the eve of the flyby, James Green, NASA’s Directory of Planetary Science, perhaps summed up the vision best: “I hope you don’t get a lot of sleep. Because this is science, and science never sleeps.”

Astrid Aguilar lives under the stars at the Mt. Sopris Observatory just outside Aspen. A freelance writer and astronomy enthusiast, she reported in from NASA mission control in Laurel, Maryland, for The Aspen Times.