Until a couple of days ago, this was the best, most detailed image we had of Pluto:
And now we have this:
We humans can be pretty awesome.
According to NASA’s press release, the accuracy of the New Horizons flyby was, well…out of this world.
New Horizons’ almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space — the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.
The tennis ball thing is amazing enough, but it’s the one minute part that gets me. As one science geek described it on Twitter:
I hereby approve the verbing of “science.” We scienced like nobody’s business!
Did you know that New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft we’ve ever launched? Of course it’s all very fun to toss around stats like “faster than 30,000 mph” or “14 kilometers per second,” but what does that really mean in terms we can visualize? xkcd artist Randall Munroe published a good illustration:
Here’s my favorite comparison for putting that speed in perspective: If you were standing at one end of a football field and fired a gun toward the other end, right while New Horizons flew past you, the spacecraft would reach the far end zone before the bullet made it to the 10-yard line.
He also mentioned that in the same amount of time, a speeding car would travel about one inch (2.5 cm).
But the best news of all is that New Horizons called home. During the flyby, it was too busy gobbling up all the data it could to pause for a communication, so the project team chewed their fingernails as they waited for the first scheduled reconnection. Given the probe’s proximity to Pluto and any debris that might be twirling around in the planet’s orbit, this was a moment of relatively high potential for something to go kapow. After all, at 14 kilometers per second, all it would take would be a bit of rock or ice the size of a rice grain to destroy the probe.
Here is a team of happy scientists, finding out that their baby has phoned home:
Yep, we scienced really well.