Tuesday morning, the NASA New Horizons space probe succeeded in completing its Pluto flyby mission. The unmanned spacecraft, launched in 2006, traveled some 3 Billion miles and came within 7,700 miles of the dwarf planet. However, confirmation of the success was not known until just after 9pm EDT on Tuesday night. Not only did the signal tale some time reaching Earth, but the space probe had to turn around on its axis to reorient its antenna to point home. During the flyby, the antenna was pointed forward, acting as a shield to block micrometeorites. The first batch of Pluto photos are expected to be released sometime today after the Pluto images and other data have been processed.
With the success of the New Horizons mission, the United States becomes the first, and only, nation to have succeeded in sending probes to all of the planetary bodies in our Solar System. Even though Pluto had been downgraded from an actual planet to a dwarf planet, it still counts. Beyond that, nobody else has reached the outer most planets like Uranus and Neptune.
So with this milestone achieved, what is next in the cards for NASA? Under the Obama administration, our space agency has undergone a ′transformation′ and not for the better. Aside from turning NASA into a Muslim outreach program, the Obama White House has scrapped plans for building a base on the Moon by 2020. Drastic changes to our entire manned space effort have added further delays and reductions in capabilities. There is now talk of using robots to build a base prior to a human return to the Moon.
Robots, rovers and space probes certainly do provide more ′real science′ for the dollar. Our space-borne, automated observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, are providing us with new wonders and knowledge almost daily. The Mars rover program is also making significant progress in learning what we can about our nearest, planetary neighbor.
The New Horizons space probe sent on its mission to do a Pluto flyby completes our exploration of the outer Solar System since the launch of Pioneer 10 and 11 in the early 1970s. These missions are especially difficult, not only due to the great distances they must travel, but for overall endurance. With so little energy available from sunlight, such spacecraft must depend on power from nuclear isotopes. Launching such spacecraft is always risky and usually brings out plenty of environmentalist kooks to protest.