They called it the "first mission on the last planet".
In 2006, a 224-foot rocket took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying a tiny, 1,000-pound probe called the New Horizons. Their mission: to reach over billions of kilometers of cold, dark space to meet Pluto, the remotest planet of the solar system.
The company would finally close a chapter of space exploration and mark the last of the Milky Way planets to be explored.
The story of how a group of scientists accomplished this feat is narrated in "Hunting New Horizons: In the Epic First Mission to Pluto."
It was written by Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and chief writer of the mission. and David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist and science journalist.
Other planets were visited decades ago. Pluto's closest neighbors, Neptune and Uranus, were analyzed in the 1
"Pluto was the last game in town, the last train to Clarksville, the last mission," says Stern. "What could be a bigger contribution to this field than getting started on [a mission]?"
Space had always interested Stern. He watched one of the early Apollo landings and was astonished when news anchor Walter Cronkite held up a copy of NASA's thick flight plan. Later he studied aerospace engineering.
The New Horizons Mission was born in 1989 on pasta and mediocre Cabernet. A group of planetary scientists, including Stern, had gathered for a conference in Baltimore and discussed the need for a mission for Pluto. At this meeting, a grassroots movement was launched to convince NASA to plan and, above all, fund such a mission.
"Between the Pluto proponents, mostly younger scientists, and Pluto critics, mostly older scientists, broke out a debate [at NASA]," write the authors.
The debate dragged on for more than a decade with numerous frustrating stops and launches. Time was crucial.
Pluto had reached the point closest to the sun in 1989, and since then he had slipped farther in his mighty 248-year orbit. The farther away it was, the harder it would be to reach.
Scientists and Pluto fans launched a letter campaign and media campaign to restart the mission.
"I think we annoyed some people in NASA because we kept pushing," says Stern.
Finally, NASA declined in 2000:
Several teams of scientists offered proposals for a probe, but NASA eventually selected one from Stern and his team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute. The disadvantage was that the ship had to be launched in just four to six years and the mission had to cost one-fifth of its predecessor Voyager. (The final bill ultimately amounted to around $ 700 million.)
Pluto is too far from the sun to ship solar cells. Therefore, the team used a plutonium-powered battery.
The battery was tested in Idaho and when it was shipped to Florida to take off, it was transported in a heavily armed convoy. NASA even sent bait convoys to drop anyone who wanted to steal or sabotage the plutonium.
On January 19, 2006, "Go Atlas, Go Centaur, go new horizons," crackled over the radio and the spaceship blasted off.
It was loaded with sensitive instruments, including a remote camera, a spectrometer and a dust counter. But its particular payload was the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.
Stern and his team celebrated a successful start by solemnly burning the emergency plans they did not need to use.
With New Horizons gone, now they would have to wait. And wait. Even at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour, the ship would take almost a decade to reach its destination.
In August 2006, barely seven months after the start, strange news came into the team. A group of astronomers had decreed that Pluto would no longer be considered a real planet, but a "dwarf planet."
The New Horizons team's response to the decree ranged from "indifferent" to "puzzled" to "seriously pissed off." But in the end, they argued, "Dwarf planets are planets." End of altercation. "
While the ship racing through outer space, the team was busy remotely checking their instruments, uploading new software, and planning the day it would be flown by Pluto.
After waiting almost 10 years, the ship was only able to observe the planet for a few hours as it passed.
New Horizons finally made it in July 2015. As it passed, it collected a treasure trove of scientific data. But because it was so far away and the station was so weak, it took more than a year for the data to come back to Earth.
But what was discovered "took off our socks," says Stern, who was only 32 when he debated the mission for the first time in 1989, but was almost 50 when it came true. The terrain of the planet was surprisingly diverse, with ravines and towering mountains. It also proved to be geologically active.
"That should not happen on a small planet," says Stern. "It should cool down early in its history and stop evolving 4 billion years after it's formed, not yet active, but I think Pluto does not read the textbooks because it's still active today."
The probe also revealed a massive nitrogen glacier that illuminates the orbits of the mysterious moons of the body, indicating a liquid ocean of water within Pluto.
Today, the ship is another billion miles behind Pluto, with enough power to run for decades. This New Year's Day is expected to be overflown by an object in the Kuiper Belt, an encircling cluster of rocky bodies. It will be the farthest topic ever studied. New horizon indeed.