It’s an exciting time in the world of science. And Boston’s science community is brimming with enthusiasm after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday morning — a mission that will provide new insights about the dwarf planet in the outer reaches of our solar system.
"This mission is taking human curiosity to the farthest reaches that we can get to with our available technology," Richard Binzel, an MIT professor of planetary science and team member of NASA's New Horizons mission, told WBUR's Newcast Unit. "Pluto has always been this far frontier, this unreachable goal, this unreachable place -- and we’ve done it."
"Pluto has always been this far frontier, this unreachable goal, this unreachable place -- and we’ve done it."Richard Binzel, of MIT and NASA
The New Horizons spacecraft launched January 19, 2006 and after an almost 10-year, 3-billion-mile journey made its closest approach to Pluto, about 7,750 miles above the surface, just before 8 a.m. If it survived the flyby, the spacecraft will reconnect with Earth shortly after 9 p.m. to transmit photos and other information. Once New Horizons reconnects Tuesday night, it will take a total of 16 months for the spacecraft to send all of its data — 10 years worth — back to Earth, according to NASA.
New images are expected Wednesday, though the latest images taken by the spacecraft before its flyby (like the one above) already have scientists excited about what's to come from the mission.
"We are awestruck at how amazing Pluto looks," Binzel said. "We often think of the outer solar system as being a cold and barren and desolate place, and Pluto has shown that there’s just so much diversity, so many different colors and regions and smooth places, ridges, craters, ice fields."
Scott Kenyon, a senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, called the mission "a really exciting time for planetary science." Kenyon studies how Pluto and the planetary systems formed. He said the mission will tell us a lot about the origins of Earth.
"The objects in the outer part of the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune are as pristine and as un-evolved as they come in our solar system," Kenyon said in a phone interview. "So we get to see what things looked like billions of years ago when the planets were starting to form."
Kenyon said he expects to learn more about Pluto's surface, topography and composition as well as the Kuiper belt — the region of our solar system outside the eight planets.
Over at the Museum of Science, David Rabkin, the museum's planetarium director, has also been closely watching the New Horizons mission. He said the mission provides a great learning opportunity because there are so many unknowns about Pluto.
"This Pluto mission is particularly important because it’s very fundamental science and we really don’t know what it’s going to teach us and yet it has the possibility to open our eyes in all kinds of ways," Rabkin said. "Almost certainly there will be some surprises that come out of this science. Bold science often surprises us and this probably will too."
"Almost certainly there will be some surprises that comes out of this science. Bold science often surprises us and this probably will too."David Rabkin, Museum of Science planetarium director
What we learn from this mission may ultimately lead to applications that touch our daily lives, Rabkin added.
The museum currently has two shows about Pluto. Rabkin said they are "just plain old curious" to see what information comes out of the mission so they can incorporate it into their programs. The shows — "Explore Pluto" and "Inside NASA: From Dream to Discovery" — both discuss the New Horizons mission. The "Inside NASA" show features a film with renderings of the dwarf planet.
"One of the fun things about the show is we had to make an educated guess about what the surface of Pluto would actually look like and build it into the show," Rabkin said. "One of the things that we’re very curious about is what will the best images of Pluto tell us about what it really looks like and then we’re going to have to make a decision about whether we’re actually going to change some of the visuals in our show or not."
In addition to providing new information about Pluto, Rabkin said the mission also represents a "really high stakes moment" in technology.
"Another dimension to this mission is the technical excellence and audacity of the whole thing," Rabkin said. "I mean it was built with technology that’s essentially 15 years old. It is a real engineering marvel."
Rabkin said the museum hopes to use the New Horizons mission to get people more interested in engineering and inspire a sense of wonder about the universe.
"When we get that first signal back from New Horizons and hopefully it says, 'Hey, still here, everything’s fine,' people are going to go bananas," Rabkin said. "It was kind of that level of excitement when we landed the last rover on Mars. It was technically very, very difficult. There were potentially many things that could go wrong and you just prayed ... that spacecraft will do what it’s supposed to do. We’re in one of those moments right now with New Horizons."
Here's a look at what used to be our best image of Pluto and what we have now: