First Mission to Pluto

150714-sputnikplanumAs you’ve no doubt heard by now, the New Horizons spacecraft recently streaked past Pluto and is now transmitting data from its close encounter with the distant dwarf-planet planet back home to Earth. It will take NASA scientists a while to decipher all the data, but the first HD images are already pretty impressive. One shows “ice mountains” that rise more than 11,000 feet above the surface of Pluto. Another photograph shows a mysterious chasm on the surface of Charon, the largest of Pluto’s several moons. Earlier today, NASA released what may be the most tantalizing photo yet (featured in the banner and also seen here), as well as this completely awesome flyover video. The success of the New Horizons mission provides historians like me with a chance to revisit the legacy of American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who first spotted Pluto through his telescope in 1930. His discovery remains one of the most significant feats in the long history of astronomy. Tombaugh is no longer with us (he passed away in 1997), but his children, grandchildren, and extended family are still alive and they have rightfully swelled with pride as Pluto dominates the headlines. Even the Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw proudly touts Tombaugh as a great-uncle. What’s more, some of Tombaugh’s ashes were placed aboard the New Horizons spacecraft, and are now soaring into the Kuiper Belt that he first glimpsed more than eighty years ago. Very cool stuff.