New Horizons Reaches Pluto

Via the New York Times:

It was like New Year’s Eve in Times Square as the countdown clock ticked down to zero. “We’re going to do our 10-9-8 thing and you can get your flags out,” S. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto told the people gathered here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which is operating the mission. “We’re going to go absolutely ape.” About 7:50 a.m. Tuesday, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its closest pass by Pluto, coming within 7,800 miles of the surface. The crowd, which included the children of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930, cheered.

As soon as it arrived, New Horizons was leaving, speeding along its trajectory at 31,000 miles per hour. For now, no one knows how the spacecraft is faring. NASA released the newest color picture of Pluto, which was sent down on Monday and offers the clearest view yet. Among the science findings so far: a precise measurement of Pluto’s diameter; greater than expected amounts of nitrogen leaking from the atmosphere into space; confirmation of nitrogen and methane ices at the polar region; and images that show strange, and different, landscapes on Pluto and Charon, its largest moon. On Monday, Paul Schenk, a co-investigator on the science team, said, “It looks like somebody painted it for a ‘Star Trek’ episode.”