Pluto New Horizons: Our Last "Planetary" Frontier

As I write this the Pluto New Horizons spacecraft has just made it's closest approach to the dwarf planet of Pluto. Growing up as a kid I would gobble up just about anything related to space. Every chance I could get I would go look through a telescope (eventually my own) and gaze at the planets and the stars. I never imagined that one day I would play a very small part in "planetary" exploration history...sending a probe to visit the last (planet, as it was called when I was a kid) yet unexplored by mankind.

My small part in the mission was three-fold. As a flight design engineer for NASA's Launch Services Program I helped out with the NASA certification of the then new Atlas V fleet of launch vehicles. We had a couple of exciting missions coming up that would require this new vehicle (MRO a Mars orbiter and Pluto New Horizons). The other role I played in the Pluto mission was on launch day. I was "NASA Winds" for the actual launch, but for this launch this meant I was out in Denver in the "Winds Room" where they actually receive the upper-level atmospheric wind data from the weather balloons that are launched at Cape Canaveral, process the data and determine if the vehicle has the margins to fly through those wind profiles. It took a few launch attempts to actually get New Horizons off the ground due to scrubs from ground winds that were too high. My last connecting with the Pluto flyby is that 2 of my 3 kid's names are on that spacecraft zipping past the surface of Pluto. Before launch NASA put out a call to the public for anyone who would like their name included on a disk that was be carried on the spacecraft. At the time I only had two kids and their names (along with many others) are flying past Pluto right now. My youngest child, who just turned 10, wasn't born when this disk was made. That really drives it home for me just how much has changed in my life since we blasted this tiny little spacecraft on it's way from Earth all those years ago.

Now we wait. The images of Pluto have been taken and stored on-board the spacecraft. Several of those images are scheduled to immediately be sent back to Earth, but it takes about 4 hours at that distance going the speed of light for the images to be received. So in just a few hours (late morning July 14th 2015 eastern time) we will received those very first images from New Horizon's flyby of Pluto. It will then take many days and many weeks for us to get all the rest of the data from that flyby and it will take months and years to totally process it all. So we have a lot of scientific discovery yet to come long after we get those first few images back.

If you want to see a detailed timeline of exactly what the Pluto New Horizon's spacecraft is doing right now you can see this at the APL website. You can also see exactly where the spacecraft is right now and even "re-wind" back in time to see how the spacecraft approached and flew by the dwarf planet using this JPL web browser based view called Eyes on the Solar System.

In the mean time, enjoy the last image of Pluto we received just before the flyby and wait anxiously with the rest of the planet for the 1st of the flyby images to come back to Earth in just a few hours...

Photo Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Photo Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

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