We waited a whole nine-and-a-half years, 3 billion miles and several heart-stopping drops in communication, but finally the moment has arrived: New Horizons, NASA’s spacecraft designed to explore the furthest reaches of our solar system, passed Pluto at 7:49 a.m. ET on Tuesday.
“It should be a day of incredible pride,” Charlie Bolden, NASA’s chief administrator, announced on NASA TV amid jubilant applause and cheers.
The spacecraft’s travel was methodically planned and on point: it arrived one minute before scheduled arrival and used a “36-by-57 mile window in space” to get to the far off planet, a feat NASA compared to “the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.” At its closest approach, New Horizons was about 7,750 miles above Pluto’s surface, approximately the distance between New York and Mumbai.
The New Horizons’ journey to Pluto had reached a turning point last week when images of its nearing proximity to the planet arrived, offering scientists glimpses of a mysterious planet astronomers know very little about. With New Horizons’ approach, the United States has solidified its role as a leader in space exploration, becoming the first and only country to have sent a spacecraft to every planet in our solar system.
The images of the small planet are stunning and feature what many astronomy geeks have dubbed a heart in the lower hemisphere, perhaps a crater.
New Horizons has traveled 3 billion miles thus far on its journey in outer space.