New Horizons Flies By Pluto

New Horizons got within just a few thousand miles of Pluto's surface today, and the data it sends back promises to be amazing.

Pluto Image 14 July

Early this morning, while the East Coast of the United States was still waking up and the West Coast largely still asleep, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft came closer to Pluto than any man made object ever has:

LAUREL, Md. — 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 Plutotold the people gathered at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory here, which is operating the mission. “We’re going to go absolutely ape.”

At about 7:50 a.m. Tuesday, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made it 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.

New Horizons, which is in the middle of 22 hours of automated scientific observations, will not check in with mission controllers for several more hours, with the signal scheduled to arrive on Earth at 8:53 p.m. By tomorrow, the spacecraft will be mostly finished with the data collecting phase of the mission and begin sending back the trove of information for scientists to delve into.

NASA released the newest color picture of Pluto, which was sent down on Monday and offers the clearest view so far.

New Horizons was launched from Cape Canaveral in January 2006 and over the past nine and a half years it has made its journey deep into the Solar System to a destination that has long seemed like one that we’d never reach. As the craft got closer to its destination over the past several weeks, we started seeing more and more detailed photos of a planet that only years before appeared as a blurry afterthought even in a photo taken through the Hubble Space Telescope. The photograph above, for example, was sent by NASA on its Twitter account just hours before this morning’s encounter. Even at that distance, you can begin to make out what appear to be formations on the surface of Pluto as well as color variations on the surface that have led some people to find shapes that have the appearance of hearts and other objects. When we are finally able to start seeing the photographs that were taken by New Horizons during its closest approaches in the next 24 hours or so, the detail is likely to be even more stunning and clear. During the post-encounter briefing this morning, for example, one of the mission’s scientists said that the image data they had received so far showed clear indications of snow and polar ice caps on the dwarf planet, which would seem to suggest that there’s at least some minimal atmosphere surrounding it. We’ve also gotten much more detailed views of Charon, Pluto’s moon which was only discovered in 1978.

Given the fact that Pluto was only discovered in 1930, by Daniel Tombaugh, who is in some sense along for the ride, the fact that we’re now flying a craft by it is really one of those extraordinary accomplishments that probably don’t get the attention they deserve because they aren’t as sexy as the manned space program. In terms of actual science, though, it’s rather clear that the unmanned probes that have been sent into the Solar System, largely by the United States, have been far more important to the expansion of human knowledge than the manned program has been. At some point, perhaps, a manned mission will do what Pioneer, Voyager, New Horizons, and other missions have done, and more, but for now these little robots are our best way to find out more about the universe and they’re doing a fantastic job.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Scott says:

    I still get excited about the space program and new discoveries. I find it remarkable that, in this age of shorter and shorter attention spans and a focus on short term returns on investment, that a program can be created that takes a decade or more to come to fruition. It is a reflection of the institution that is NASA that long term planning and execution can still be achieved in this country.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    Unmanned missions are the way to go. Until we find away to block solar and cosmic radiation and create artificial gravity space will remain a deadly place for humans. A manned mission to Mars at this point might as well be a one way trip.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    Also from the NASA quoted above:

    We have completed the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, an endeavour started under President Kennedy more than 50 years ago

    An amazing accomplishment that only shows what we are really capable of.
    Imagine if we worried more about this sort of thing and less about who people sleep with?

  4. DrDaveT says:

    There is a strong, direct link between doing this kind of cool science and having enough skilled engineers 20 years from now to do all of the mundane things we need engineers to do — both for our comforts and for our competitiveness in the world economy. Space exploration pays for itself hundreds of times over.

    Congress does not know this. But then, they can’t even manage to fully fund tax collection, so that’s not too surprising.

  5. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Not seeing a lot of craters… VERY interesting! Looks like a huge glacier.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    Way cool.

  7. Paul L. says:

    Hopefully one of the scientists will not wear a shirt with sexy women and ruin this discovery that was only possible because of the scientific advancements from the facts of Evolution, the Big Bang Theory and String Theory.

  8. Mu says:

    I just hope the more detailed pictures will show the wrecks of the At-At walkers from the battle.

  9. Hal_10000 says:

    Daniel Tombaugh

    I think you mean Clyde.

  10. Lenoxus says:

    @Paul L.: String theory? I don’t get where that fits in your joke.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Lenoxus: Neither does he.

    This, like every other mission in the solar system has reinforced once again what a fascinating but hostile environment the vast reaches of space really are and how important our own small fragile planet is to our continued existence. This really is all we get.

  12. @James in Silverdale, WA:

    The information released yesterday, that Pluto is bigger (and thus less dense) than we thought it was also suggests that it more ice and less rock then perviously thought.

  13. Mikey says:

    In the unlikely event anyone doubts just how incredible an accomplishment it is to send a spacecraft over three billion miles to directly intercept a small planet (there! I said it!) in the vast emptiness of space…download the free demo of this game and try just getting into orbit.

  14. Argon says:

    Consider also that each one of these probes often covers at least half a career for many of the scientists involved. There are often 1-2 decades between the conception and the acquisition of data from the missions.

    Fun fact: The probe passed the moon’s orbit in only about 9 hours after launch. It was a “bat out of Hell” transit.

  15. CB says:



    +1000 points

  16. ernieyeball says:

    Unmanned missions are the way to go.

    I suppose cheaper lower cost is a good idea and safer has it’s merits.
    When I was a senior in HS in 1966 we would interrupt class to watch the launch of the rockets carrying the Gemini astronauts. I got the itch to be weightless.
    When at the age of 21 I saw Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey* in early 1969 I was sure I would be able to celebrate my 40th at a resort on the moon. Apollo 11 confirmed that fantasy.
    Sometimes the future doesn’t quite work out like we want it to.

    *Drove 2 hours with me and 3 roommates from Sleepytown to St. Louis crammed into my 1963 Corvair, a car more dangerous on Earth than any space capsule in flight. When we got to the theatre I dropped off my roomies to get tickets and find seats. Took me a while to find a place to park since it was dark and I had not been there before. When I finally got seated I had missed the opening discovery of the monolith and the famous shot of my uncle pitching that bone to the heavens.
    (The Sharks and the Jets?)

  17. Keith says:

    Slightly off topic, but the recent book The Martian was really well done. It is about a man stranded on Mars during a manned mission. The science about what would be required to accomplish such a feat seemed pretty realistic (Including some of the stuff listed by Ron above). It’s a quick read and I promise it will capture your imagination about what a manned mission to Mars could look like.

    Also, well done NASA for the trip to Pluto.

  18. stonetools says:

    No monolith sightings? I’m disappointed.
    More seriously, kudos to NASA. It’s maybe the best Big Gumint program ever and an ongoing rebuke to those who think the federal government can’t do anything right or should be a minimalist “night watchman” state. Americans can dream big and use the power of government to achieve big things.

  19. DrDaveT says:

    OK, so I watched a fair bit of the live press conference when the first post-flyby science data had been downloaded… and it’s awesome. Surprises, widely variable terrains, unexpected phenomena. Charon’s surface is too young — and the “tidal forces” argument that allegedly explained that on Saturn’s moons won’t work for a tidally-locked moon like Charon.

    The next decade is going to be really fun.

  20. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT: I watched that, too. The moment the detail of Pluto’s surface came up, I thought “holy crap…Pluto is geologically active.”

    They’ve named the heart shaped formation on Pluto “Tombaugh Regio.” Fitting, indeed.

  21. ÿþC says:

    un bon article que je vais surement relayer, par contre êtes vous sur que ça marche vraiment ?