Scientists celebrate successful flyby of Pluto

We were with the hundreds of scientists and engineers who helped make this day possible. It's 7:49 a.m. here at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.

They are celebrating the spaceship New Horizons coming within 8,000 of Pluto. It is the closest flyby to our solar system's most distant planet or dwarf planet.

"By studying this, we learn more about ourselves,” said Bill Nye, known to many as The Science Guy. “We learn more about our place in space."

At the size of a baby grand piano, the New Horizons spacecraft traveled about three billion miles over the past nine years at 30,000 miles per hour. That is ten miles per second. It is the fastest spacecraft ever built.

Mission operations analyst Karl Whittenburg is part of the team that helped to make this other worldly rendezvous happen.

"I'm really just amazed,” he said. “I've been working on this program for nearly 12 years, and to reach this point, it's just surreal."

We have now learned Pluto is slightly larger than previously thought with a radius of 736 miles. Scientists confirmed the existence of a polar ice cap on Pluto with nitrogen escaping from its atmosphere.

"We've never been to Pluto, so to me, just to see Pluto, to see what it's like, that in itself is what I'm looking forward to," said Alice Bowman.

She is a mission operations manager at the laboratory.

"It's just amazing, and when we get signals tonight, it will be fantastic,” said Bowman. “Then we start the continuing revelation of Pluto with all that data that will take about 16 months to get back."

Claude Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1930. Some of his ashes are on board New Horizons. Tombaugh's son, Al, was in Laurel on Tuesday.

"Well, it's becoming more and more significant,” said Al Tombaugh. “Probably more significant than we thought it was back in the early days because really it's the gateway to the Kuiper Belt, which is a whole different set of objects that can tell us a lot about the origins of the Earth and about the solar system as a whole."

Today was all about Pluto. But what about tomorrow? Nye said the coming flybys of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, could really rock our world.

"There is twice as much sea water as there is on Earth, so if you have twice as much sea water as on Earth for four and a half billion years, one cannot help but stroke one's chin,” he said. “Is there something alive there? Maybe we would find the Europanian Fish People or whatever they are and it would change the course of human history. If you were to discover life on another world, it would change the way everybody thinks about everything."

That is something to think about as we finally see Pluto in a new and different light.

Confirmation of the successful flyby came 13 hour later Tuesday night as New Horizons messaged home.

Call it a cosmic coincidence, but it was 50 years ago today that the spaceship Mariner 4 gave NASA the first close-up pictures of Mars.

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