“It takes persistence.” – Dr. Alan Stern, principal investigator on the New Horizons mission to Pluto
Last week Alan Stern, a New Orleans native, came to LSU to present the results of the New Horizons mission to Pluto in a seminar in the LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy. He also gave a public talk about the mission in the LSU Memorial Hill library, and met with astronomers and students to talk broadly about the mission.
“We have learned from the New Horizons data that our solar system is completely different than we thought,” Stern said. “It’s dominated by little planets like Pluto that orbit very far away, all of them in these erratic orbits that are the result of being far from the sun.”
The New Horizons mission to Pluto launched on January 19, 2006. On July 14, 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft passed closer to Pluto than anyone, or rather any spacecraft, has ever been. A few hours later the mission crew on Earth received the first bits of post-flyby data, and Pluto data has been rolling in ever since. There is still data being downloaded from the New Horizons 2015 flyby of Pluto that nobody has seen yet, Stern says.
“The challenging parts of New Horizons were battling the great length of time, the 9.5 years, to make sure that we didn’t forget any of the technical details and that we didn’t make any mistakes over that long period of time,” Stern said. “We tried to encapsulate all the lessons learned as we went so that once we got to Pluto, because we had no back-up to the spacecraft, that we would be sure it would work.”
What do we know about Pluto today? Pluto is actually a binary planet together with its moon Charon. Pluto is the only double planet system that a NASA spacecraft has explored, Stern said at a NEAF Astronomy & Space conference in 2016. We know that Pluto’s surface features ice volcanoes and huge ridges of crystalline methane. There also may be a liquid ocean hiding deep under Pluto’s surface. "Only Earth wears its oceans on the outside,” Stern said during his public talk at LSU. However, Pluto still offers many unsolved geological mysteries.
“I had been working on Pluto mission studies for 14 years before New Horizons was a thing,” Stern said. “The way that New Horizons got started was some of the big spacecraft laboratory directors in the United States called me, at the time that NASA put out a competition to fly to Pluto, and asked if I would lead it. I said yes, and came up with the name ‘New Horizons.’”
Stern’s favorite image of Pluto is the image that New Horizons’ cameras took from “behind” the planet facing back toward the sun, taken as the spacecraft flew beyond Pluto and deeper into our solar system. To Stern, this photo is evidence that we made it there, and beyond. It also reveals Pluto's blue sky.
“My favorite memories of the New Horizons mission were when we launched and we were finally flying there, and we knew we were underway” Stern said. “One of my favorite moments was flyby itself, because it was such an emotional high for all of us who had worked on it for so long to see it unfold and how much public interest there was. The spacecraft perfectly executed all of the instructions to explore Pluto.”
“It was a lot of fun to come back to the state where I was born and talk about the most meaningful project of my career,” Stern said.
We live-tweeted Alan Stern's public Pluto talk at LSU. Find a recap here!