“People love exploration”: what New Horizons researchers learned from the Pluto flyby

“A scientific wonderland” is how Alan Stern – principle investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission – described the myriad of unexpected discoveries beamed back from the Pluto flyby in 2015. 

Having worked on the project for 26 years, Stern was in Melbourne, Australia, this week to discuss not only the scientific discoveries of the mission, but its social implications too. 

In addition, NASA research engineer Michael Vincent, who also played a critical role in the mission’s success, was there to detail the technicalities of the spacecraft itself. {%recommended 1069%}

Both speakers emphasised the critical role played by the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, an Australian-based tracking station used as a vital point of communication between the space probe and Earth.  

Although the probe successfully reached its closest approach to Pluto in July 2015, the data collected was only fully transmitted to Earth in October 2016. 

The mission returned a whirlwind of unexpected findings. It uncovered the largest glacier in the solar system and spotted massive ice volcanoes. It beamed back unexpected data on Pluto’s moons, and revealed a planet as active as Earth or Mars, despite being at a temperature of nearly absolute zero. 

Yet the mission’s success extended beyond this. “We made more than just scientific discoveries,” Stern said; “we rediscovered how much people love exploration.” 

As the space probe continues its journey deeper into the outskirts of our Solar System – with Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 having been nominated as the next target for the mission’s close flyby – Stern ruminated on the future of space travel and its ability to unite the people of our planet. 

“More than two billion individuals came to our website in the two days surrounding the flyby,” Stern said. “If two billion people wanted to watch a robot fly by Pluto, imagine what it will be like when the first humans step on Mars. It’ll be the most unifying event anybody could ever put on.”

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