In July, more than nine years after its January 2006 launch, NASA’s New Horizons space probe flew within 8,000 miles of Pluto’s surface and, in the process, provided the first distinct look at the mysterious dwarf planet. Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the mission, spoke on Thursday evening about the process of his team's mission, what it discovered and what his team’s accomplishment means for our understanding of the solar system.
Stern’s talk, the seventh in the lecture series put on by Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA), took the audience at Ryan Family Auditorium through the New Horizons probe’s journey from start to finish.
New Horizons left Earth’s orbit within 10 minutes, then reached the moon within nine hours – slightly faster than the three days it took the Apollo crew. The probe passed by Jupiter after 13 months and, after more than six years, finally began to approach Pluto.
First, New Horizons passed by Charon, the largest of the dwarf planet’s five moons, where pictures revealed a much more complex surface than anticipated. But, Stern said, it paled in comparison to Pluto, “the star of the show.”
“Every time I look at one of the higher resolution images, my head hurts,” Stern said, flashing the now-famous high-resolution photo of Pluto on the massive auditorium screen.
Sterns said Pluto’s surface has 1,200 craters, but none exist on Sputnik Planum, the large, flat icy plain near the bottom of the planet. The New Horizons team will continue to explore mysteries like this as the probe continues farther into the frigid depths of Kuiper Belt.
“It’s amazing to be part of a project like this,” Stern said. “It’s something a little larger than life that you know is going to go down in history.”