"The journey has taken more than nine years. New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket in 2006, after a speedy four-year construction. Prior to that, the so-called Pluto Underground spent more than 15 years trying to get NASA to greenlight the project. Since launch, the small probe has traveled for 3,463 days and 2.97 billion miles—about 32 times the distance between the Earth and the sun. When New Horizons left, a Super Nintendo game offered better resolution than our best images of Pluto. Though the best are still to come, the probe already has sent back color pictures measured in megapixels."
"But this is mere icing. The rest of the cake won’t come out of the oven for another 18 months. Downlink speed is slow—about two kilobytes per second—and it takes four hours for a signal to reach Earth. So far, New Horizons has only sent back the tiniest fraction of the data it will collect. But let’s take a moment to revel in all we’ve learned so far. During the last few days, New Horizons has treated us to increasingly detailed images of the geography on Pluto’s surface. Astronomers didn’t even know Pluto's true size until yesterday. “We are already seeing complex and nuanced surfaces that tell us of history of these two bodies that is beyond our wildest dreams on the science team,” says Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator." (Wired)
As a child in the 1960s, I was enthralled with space travel and the race to the moon. I and my young friends drew detailed plans for spaceships, built models of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft and imagined being on spaceflights to other planets. Every time there is a major spaceflight event like the flyby of Pluto, the embers of hope and excitement of my youthful obsession with space are rekindled.
As far as major spaceflight events go, this is a doozy. We haven’t explored a planet (or dwarf planet… thanks, Neil DeGrasse Tyson) since Voyager 2 buzzed Neptune in 1989. New Horizons gave everybody a scare on the 4th of July when the Johns Hopkins APL lost telemetry with the craft. It was an Apollo 13 moment. This is exciting stuff.
I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it well when he tweeted, ”Were it not for NASA & kindred programs of discovery, I wonder what hope would remain for our species to rise above itself.” I also got a chuckle when he admitted, “I wrote “The Pluto Files” book in recovery after years of hate-mail from school children.”