Pluto Flyby Success! NASA Probe Phones Home After Epic Encounter

Pluto Flyby Success! NASA Probe Phones Home After Epic Encounter

The first-ever flyby of Pluto was a huge success.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has sent a status update home to its handlers here on Earth, indicating that the probe survived its historic encounter with Pluto this morning (July 14) — & that reams of astonishing data should be on the way soon. The message came in to mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, at 8:53 p.m. EDT today (0053 GMT Wednesday), 4.5 hours after New Horizons sent it.

"We have a healthy spacecraft," mission operations manager Alice Bowman of APL said to a standing ovation at mission control. "We've recorded data of the Pluto system, & we're outbound from Pluto." [New Horizons' Epic Pluto Flyby: Complete Coverage]

p> The probe is approximately 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) from Earth, so communication is not exactly instantaneous. And New Horizons cannot simultaneously send messages & gather data, which explains why the update didn't come in sooner: The team prioritized making observations at & around the time of closest Pluto approach, which occurred at 7:49 a.m. EDT (1149 GMT).

Mission team members said they had expected New Horizons to make it through the flyby OK, yet they couldn't be sure until hearing from the probe. New Horizons streaked through the Pluto system at approximately 31,000 mph (50,000 km/h) — so swift that a collision with a piece of debris the size of a grain of rice could have knocked the spacecraft out.

So the check-in was met with boisterous cheers — and certainly more than a few sighs of relief — by the team at APL.

It was the second celebration of the day at mission heaquarters. Team members moreover erupted this morning when New Horizons reached closest approach, coming within just 7,800 miles (12,500 km) of Pluto's surface to scrutinize the dwarf planet, its huge moon, Charon, & the system's four tiny satellites with seven different science instruments.

That detailed investigation is ongoing. New Horizons will remain in its current nine-day-long "encounter mode" of operations through Thursday (July 16), mission team members have said.

The spacecraft has already beamed home stunning images of Pluto & Charon over the past few weeks, yet the photos from closest approach — which should start reaching mission control tomorrow morning — will be on another level altogether.

"Our data tomorrow will have 10 times the resolution of what we see today, & it will knock your socks off," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement today.

Indeed, Stern & others have said that New Horizons' best images should show features on Pluto's surface as small as the ponds in New York City's Central Park.

But don't expect to see everything by the end of the week; it will take up to 16 months for New Horizons to beam everything back to Earth, mission team members have said.

The $723 million New Horizons mission launched in January 2006. But Stern & others began developing the concept way back in 1989, the same year that NASA's Voyager 2 probe zoomed past Neptune.

That Neptune flyby marked the last time one of the solar system's historically recognized nine planets received its first close-up. (Pluto was still regarded as a "true" planet when New Horizons launched; the International Astronomical Union reclassified the faraway world as a dwarf planet after in 2006.)  

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

Pluto Flown By! New Horizons Team's First Impressions | Video Destination Pluto: NASA's New Horizons Mission in Pictures Pluto's Best Look Yet Snapped Hours Before Fly-By | Video Copyright 2015 SPACE.com, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.New HorizonsPluto

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