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It’s done! New Horizons confirms successful Pluto flyby

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NASA’s New Horizons has done it! It has become the first ever spacecraft to fly close to Pluto and the first to perform an extensive array of scientific experiments to gain greater insight into the composition and makeup of the dwarf planet.

The historic flyby happened on July 14 and after a radio silence of 21 hours, New Horizons phoned home just before 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday to reveal to mission control that everything happened as planned and that it has accomplished the historic first-ever flyby of Pluto.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden called it a historic win for science and for exploration and said that NASA has once again raised the bar of human potential.

New Horizons contacted the mission team as per the plan and during the 15-minute ‘phone call’ it sent a series of status messages to mission operations at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland through NASA’s Deep Space Network.

The primary reason behind the radio silence was that New Horizons had been instructed to spend the day gathering the maximum amount of data, and not communicate with Earth until it was beyond the Pluto system to conserve computing resources.

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington called the successful flyby of Pluto as a capstone event in a golden age of planetary exploration.

“While this historic event is still unfolding –with the most exciting Pluto science still ahead of us — a new era of solar system exploration is just beginning. NASA missions will unravel the mysteries of Mars, Jupiter, Europa and worlds around other suns in the coming years.”

Pluto, which has now been relegated to a dwarf planet, is the first Kuiper Belt object that has been visited by a mission from Earth. New Horizons will continue on its adventure deeper into the Kuiper Belt, where thousands of objects hold frozen clues as to how the solar system formed.

“Following in the footsteps of planetary exploration missions such as Mariner, Pioneer and Voyager, New Horizons has triumphed at Pluto,” says New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “The New Horizons flyby completes the first era of planetary reconnaissance, a half century long endeavor that will forever be a legacy of our time.”

During the flyby, New Horizons is expected to have collected ample amount of data and owing to bandwidth limitations, it will take 16 months for the spacecraft to send back all the data to Earth.

“On behalf of everyone at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, I want to congratulate the New Horizons team for the dedication, skill, creativity, and determination they demonstrated to reach this historic milestone,” said APL Director Ralph Semmel. “We are proud to be a part of a truly amazing team of scientists, engineers, and mission operations experts from across our nation who worked tirelessly to ensure the success of this mission.”