Two weeks ago, Earthlings got their first good look at the splattered, champagne-colored sphere that is dwarf planet Pluto. But it wasn’t just NASA’s 4.1 million Instagram followers, or the 3.4 million people following President Obama on Twitter, or the crowds in Times Square that got a little googly-eyed at the sight of that distant, frosted world.
It was the mission scientists, too (for real), and the hundreds of reporters covering the mission. I was one of them. Now, with Pluto more than 18 million kilometers behind the New Horizons spacecraft, all I can say is: I want more. More new worlds, more first looks.
Bitten By the Bug
Early in the morning on July 14, I was at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland when NASA released the now-iconic image of Pluto and its big, bright heart. Serendipitously, I happened to be within arm’s reach of several New Horizons scientists—including Marc Buie, Will Grundy, Mark Showalter, and Anne Verbiscer—who were awaiting the moment when the spacecraft would be closest to Pluto.
I held up my phone so they could see the Pluto pic, and we quickly formed a tight circle around my slightly shaky, slightly sweaty hand, turning that phone into a pile of putty with a prodigious amount of zooming, pointing, and panning.
Of course, they’d already seen the image a few hours before. But that didn’t matter.
“There are definitely craters. We hadn’t seen craters before.”
“This one makes a blowhole on the whale.”
“Pluto is pretty damn weird.”
“It looks like it has as much contrast as Iapetus…but Iapetus at least makes sense.”
“Why does this area run out of steam right there? There’s no latitude line that goes there. What’s controlling that? What’s controlling that boundary? WHY IS IT SO SHARP?”
That huddle is one of my favorite memories from covering the flyby. It was a moment when the thrill of seeing a world for the first time was truly palpable. It wasn’t a planned photo op or a statement sanitized for the press, but an honest expression of excitement, fueled by the energy of discovery.
It’s not every day, or even every decade, that we get moments like this.
Vestiges of Voyager
Before the Pluto flyby, the New Horizons mission had been billed as this generation’s version of Voyager. It would be the first time many of us would get to see a familiar world come into focus. Not having been a science reporter during the Voyager encounters with the outer planets, I was curious whether the flyby really was comparable to that earlier era.
“This is the jewel in the crown, I think. I really do,” says team member Bonnie Buratti, who had also worked on the Voyager mission.
For decades, the Voyager 1 and 2 flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have been heralded as twin pinnacles of exploration, for these were the spacecraft that unveiled the faces of our giant, far-flung family members. I, like many others, have gotten lost staring into Neptune’s big dark spot (which is no longer there) and wind-whipped cloud tops, and have ogled the impossibly smooth-looking robin’s egg blue of Uranus.
I wish I could have gathered around those TV screens in the 1980s and waited for the first pictures of Jupiter’s moon Io or Neptune’s moon Triton to show up, even if they were coming down in the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps especially because of that. There’s something undeniably profound about getting to know the worlds that share our little corner of the universe. Icy or roasted, minuscule or mighty, they put our home, and our existence, into context.
Turns out, crowding around a cell phone and staring at Pluto’s icy plains and Charon’s curious chasms isn’t so different from straining to see a grainy tv screen.
“The feeling of every day seeing something new and having no idea what’s in store because you’re going to somewhere completely unknown—that’s the same, and I’m getting all kinds of flashbacks,” said team member and Voyager alum John Spencer. “There’s nothing like it.”
Spencer notes that there are differences between the missions, though, especially when it comes to the rate at which data are beamed back to Earth. With Voyager, he says, the team got all those images and data back at once. New Horizons, on the other hand, will slowly empty its data recorders over 16 months. “We’re doing it in slow motion,” he says. “We don’t get the instant gratification thing we had with Voyager.”
And then there’s the evolution of social media, which was nonexistent in the 1980s but (like it or not) has played a huge role in the Pluto encounter. Now, instead of simply focusing on the science, the team had to come up with a strategy for releasing Pluto pics and sharing image analyses on the fly. That often meant long nights and sometimes hilarious musings during press conferences. But no one minded. After all, how often do you get to help reveal Pluto for the first time?
Farther Into the Fringes
These last two weeks since the flyby have been filled with a relative flood of new Pluto images and data, with announcements accompanied by official NASA press releases. Now, raw images from the flyby are posted unceremoniously and that flood has slowed to a trickle. Until September, New Horizons will be sending back a bunch of data on the interplanetary plasma environment, and maybe an occasional image or two. But then, that trickle will pick up again.
It must be nice for the team to have a few weeks away from the media spotlight (“People normally aren’t nearly as interested in my work,” Spencer said.) Yet that doesn’t mean the New Horizons team isn’t hard at work.
All those data—the strings of 1s and 0s that have traveled across the solar system until they collide with an antenna on Earth—are meaningless without someone to translate them. As New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said while testifying at a congressional hearing on July 28, “It’s only with the application of bright scientists working on those data that we can actually turn those 1s and 0s into discoveries.”
For the team, 16 months of data-crunching starts now. And who knows? NASA willing, it might only be a few short years before New Horizons zooms up on another unexplored icy target—another distant, frozen world, revolving in perpetual twilight on the fringe of our neighborhood. Already, the team has two targets in sight. It just needs to pick one, fire the spacecraft’s engines to adjust its course, and then appeal to NASA for the cash.
That world might not be as beloved as Pluto, but it will be a world as alien as anything we’ve ever set eyes on. More such worlds are waiting even closer to home. And there are more generations of Earthlings who need to know what it’s like to see part of our solar system for the very first time.