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Farewell, Pluto…

It’s now (checks watch) 9.43am on Wednesday morning, the day after the New Horizons Pluto flyby, and after a grand total of three and a half hours sleep I’m tapping away on my laptop, again, trying to make sense out of what happened yesterday. It was an awesome day, and somehow managed to be breathlessly exciting even tho, to be honest. not much really happened, at least not until the early… VERY early… hours of this morning. But I’m jumping ahead. Sorry, blame laptop jet-lag.

After getting up at 5.30am, too excited to sleep, yesterday morning was spent essentially sitting on my sofa, with Peggy beside me, staring at a screen and drinking cup after cup of tea, flicking between Twitter and Facebook, following the Tweets and posts of people either involved in or covering the mission, at the same time as watching a real-time simulation of what New Horizons was doing, and regularly checking an online countdown clock and waiting for it to reach zero. By mid-morning Twitter was groaning under the weight of Tweets from all the reporters, journalists, bloggers and space enthusiasts covering the flyby, as well as the Tweets of people actually involved in the mission, who were happy to keep the public and the media informed about what was happening and what they were doing, and it was hard keeping track of them sometimes, but worth it just to drink in the enthusiasm and the passion of everyone following the flyby, either in person over in the US or remotely online. The simulation was NASA’s brilliant “Eyes on The Solar System” app, which you download onto your computer and can then use to follow space missions like New Horizons in “real time”, with the screen displaying an accurate simulation of the spacecraft’s activities and movements.


Above: “Eyes on the Solar System” showing NH with 4 hours to go until closest approach.

Watching that was just wonderful, like sitting atop the probe as it raced towards Pluto, seeing Pluto growing larger and larger up ahead, watching the probe’s orientation change as it swung its cameras between Pluto, Charon and the smaller moons. You can see from the above screengrab that “Eyes” features a countdown clock in the bottom left corner, so I was able to keep an eye on the time with that, but I still found myself checking another website showing a clock counting down the hours, and then the minutes, and eventually the seconds until New Horizons flew past Pluto and made its historic closest approach to the dwarf planet out there in the Kuiper Belt. A habit, I think, as I’ve been following the spacecraft’s progress on that website for weeks now, but all part of the fun.

By 10.49, with two hours to go until closest approach, excitement was really building. “Eyes” was showing that NH was closing in on Pluto and its system of moons fast…


…and on Twitter and Facebook speculation about what NH’s photographs would show when they were received back on Earth was rife. Everyone was impatient to see The Image, a colour image sent back by the probe the previous day, before it had hung up its “Do not disturb!” sign around its neck and got down to business. Our expectations were certainly raised tho when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden – who had obviously seen it in advance – started singing its praises during interviews with callers on NASA TV. I noted what he was saying, and shared his comments on Twitter…

my tweets

The release of the image itself was scheduled for 1pm, in a media briefing broadcast live by NASA TV which would follow a celebration of the moment of closest approach, and no-one expected to see it before then. But…

At just after quarter past twelve, with half an hour or so to go until closest approach, a “sneak peek” preview of the image suddenly appeared online! Not a leak; NASA had deliberately released a low-resolution version of the image on its Instagram account, in advance of the release of the proper image, and everyone went wild for it!

instagram colour

Within a few minutes it was going around the world like a shock wave, being ReTweeted and Shared like crazy even as New Horizons continued to scream towards Pluto at more than 30,000 miles per hour. It was everywhere!

And the minutes kept ticking by…

At 12.30 NASA TV began a broadcast from the Johns Hopkins University, control centre for New Horizons, and the place was absolutely PACKED with people who had gathered to celebrate the fly-by. The atmosphere was genuinely electric, and as team members were interviewed, and people prepared to wave the smallest Stars and Stripes flags I have ever seen, I kept my eyes on Eyes… and suddenly we were just ten minutes or so away from the big moment…


“Eyes” showed Pluto overflowing the field of view of NH’s cameras, and on NASA TV the excitement climbed and climbed and climbed… everywhere except in the Mission Operations Centre, where one guy seemed unmoved by the whole thing…


Suddenly there was less than a minute to go..!


…and on NASA TV the countdown began. With everyone on their feet, flags in hand, they chanted… “10… 9… 8…” Huge smiles everywhere, some nervous, some happy. “7… 6… 5…4… 3… 2… 1…”

closest approach


countdown zero

And the place ERUPTED –

I couldn’t help feeling very emotional too. It was an incredible achievement – after a journey of almost ten years, after covering more than three billion miles, a spacecraft had just raced past Mars! But…

Part of me wasn’t sure WHY we were celebrating so much. After all, we didn’t actually know WHAT had happened at 12.49. If everything had worked properly, NH had just sped past Pluto in one piece, cameras clicking madly, like an American tourist on an open-topped bus going around London. But if something bad had happened earlier – if the probe had suffered another computer glitch, or had been hit by a piece of grit blown off Charon or one of the other moons, or if it had been smashed to bits in a collision with a previously unknown mini moon – then we were celebrating under false pretenses. I think a few other people thought that too, but it was the elephant in the room, no-one was speaking about it. Instead everyone swished and swayed their tiny Stars and Stripes flags, and whooped and high-fived and punched the air. Some even started chanting “USA! USA! USA!”

Now… I know some people don’t like all that Rocky V stuff during NASA events, but you know what? I do, and I think it’s perfectly fine for them to do it. After all, it’s their success they’re celebrating, their achievement, they DID it, so why shouldn’t they puff out their chests and celebrate? They’ve earned it! It’s something we should do more! I imagine that if Beagle 2 HAD phoned home on Christmas Day back in 2003, with Colin Pilinger beaming behind them the scientists in mission control would have shook hands politely, smiled self-consciously for the watching TV cameras and then got back to work, looking forward to dunking a Hob Nob or maybe a bourbon in a cup of tea later, when all the fuss had died down.

With the moment of Closest Approach passed… whatever had happened out there… it was time for the media briefing, and the Big Reveal of The Colour Picture –

red pluto.php

When that was shown at the media briefing it was bedlam, more whooping, cheering and clapping. That was a genuinely historic moment – the first close-up colour picture of Pluto was there for all to see. Such detail, such clarity…

And this has to be said: watching that grand unveiling I was struck, almost like a blow across the face, with the contrast between the attitude of the NH team and a certain team in charge of an instrument onboard a certain comet orbiter. Yesterday, NASA and the New Horizons team happily – and I mean happily, they were delighted to – released the first close-up colour image of Pluto in history, mere hours after it was taken, without any need for “proprietary periods”. They shared it with the world, as soon as they could, in fact they worked through the night to ensure it was ready to be released to the media and the public, and laughed with sheer joy as they did so. And watching them, the joy of exploration wrotten all over their faces, it was ironic to imagine the OSIRIS team tuning in at the same time, looking at that gorgeous image at the same time everyone else was, oohing and aahing over it like everyone else did, while *their* images of 67P stayed firmly behind lock and key.

I hate being so negative, really I do. I want to trumpet ESA – MY space agency! – and the ROSETTA mission from the rooftops, but yesterday really showed the problem. With absolute joy and delight the New Horizons team released an absolutely ICONIC image, an image that will literally go down in history as the first close-up colour image of Pluto. That image is drenched in science, because everything on it, *everything*, was new. Yet there are OSIRIS images now six months old, showing stunning detail, that the team there have already used in their papers and work, but they still refuse to release them. The contrast could not be starker. Later today NASA will release the first close-up images of the surface of Pluto, as soon as they can, without any bleating or science-gazumping paranoia. The NAVCAM team continues to release gorgeous pictures and there are now free-to-browse galleries containing thousands of them. Meanwhile there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of OSIRIS images perhaps that have already been worked with but are still being held back. It’s just so, so sad. And it really has to change. Someone has to make them change.

UPDATE: With incredible timing, a couple of hours after I wrote this a whole clutch of OSIRIS images was released by ESA, and some of them are stunning. So, credit where credit is due, thank you to the OSIRIS team for finally giving ESA permission to use some of their pictures and to share them with us!

So, there it was, Pluto in colour! But I must admit it wasn’t as colourful as I’d been expecting, especially after what Charles Bolden had been saying earlier during his chats on NASA TV. Yes, it was colourful… in a washed-out, salmon-pink kind of way, but I had been expecting something more like this, to be honest…

red pluto b sm

(that’s my tweaked version, made after the image was posted online)

But nope, not complaining, there was Pluto, in colour, with a bewildering variety of landforms and geological features on its surface – craters, mountains, or certainly rolling hills, and much more besides. Fantastic! I made this picture ti bring home to people just how far we’ve come, and soon it was spreading across Twitter and Facebook…

collage time

(Key: Pluto discovery image / early Hubble image / later Hubble image / New Horizons early B&W pic / New Horizons colour image)

And, of course, the best was yet to come…

..and after that it all went rather quiet, because the probe wasn’t scheduled to take a break from its science activities and beam home the space-probe equivalent of an impatient teenager’s “I’m ok, I made it, stop worrying!” phone call for several more hours, and then there would be a delay of several hours more until that message was actually received, so it was finally time to get away from the laptop, grab a bite to eat and then go and get some much-needed fresh air.


The evening passed relatively quietly. Again, much of it was spent reading Tweets and FB posts from people who were reporting on, involved in or just following the mission. There was a flurry of excitement before midnight when NASA released “new colour images” of both Pluto and Charon, and compared to the one released in the afternoon they SCREAMED colour!


WOW! Look at those!! That’s more like it!!

Ah… wait… those were “false colour” images, enhanced and manipulated and tweaked by the science team to highlight different surfaces and minerals, etc. Looking at those pictures I couldn’t help wonder if they were the ones Charlie Bolden had seen and been so amazed by, but surely the boss of NASA wouldn’t make such a mistake…

The false colour images of Pluto and Charon offered a lot of “instant science” even for the layperson. Most obviously, they showed that the famous “heart” on Pluto is actually composed of two very different areas – the area on the left is a much paler, much more yellow colour than the one on the right, which is much bluer. Also, the “ice cap” up at the top there looks very feathered, very tattered. And finally, look at that dark “polar cap” on Charon… isn’t its colour very similar to the colour of the dark areas on Pluto’s equator?

crop enh3

Up to midnight I lived on my laptop, reading all the Tweets from the New Horizons HQ where people were gathering to wait for the make or break moment of the whole mission – the receipt of the “All’s well” signal from the space probe after it had passed through the Pluto system. That wasn’t due to come back until just before 2am, during a NASA TV media briefing which was scheduled to begin at 01.30, so I finally gave in and grabbed an hour and a half’s sleep before getting up again, going online again, and tuning in to NASA TV to wait… and wait… and wait…

When I went back online and logged on to NASA TV it was 01.20 here in the UK, 8.20pm over at the media briefing, and boy were they looking tired. I can’t imagine the type of day they’d had, but it was showing on some of their faces. Now the MOC (mission control) was full of people, some of them very nervous-looking, staring at screens and waiting for New Horizons’ signal to reach Earth and reassure them than everything was ok out there…

MOC waiting signal

No-one was hoovering now! Amidst all the tension and anxiety, one lady was an oasis of calm…


That’s New Horizons Operations Manager Alice Bowman, who I reckon will wake up this morning – hopefully after a good night’s sleep! – to find she is a new national hero for her role in the mission. I was really, really impressed with her throughout the whole mission, she was cool, calm and collected throughout (no matter how she was feeling inside!) but never came across as a cold engineer, she was always approachable and obviously totally in love with what she was doing. So, as the minutes ticked by NASA TV focussed on her, sitting at that desk, listening to her headphones like Jodie Foster in CONTACT, waiting to hear The Signal from New Horizons…

And then it seemed like something was going on. Someone behind Alice broke out into a grin and made a pumping fist gesture. She gave a little smile, listening to her headphones… and slowly, so slowly it became apparent that yes, the probe had phoned home. NH had made it safely through the Pluto system!

signal celebrate

Cue shouting, clapping, whooping, cheering, an auditorium of people jumping to their feet in celebration…

But had it done all it was supposed to?

One by one, Alice went around the mission team, asking for a report on the status of their particular part of the mission, and one by one they all reported back: “….. is nominal”… “…is nominal”… “nominal results from…”

In space exploration, “nominal” is good. Nominal means normal. Nominal means “working just fine, thank you for asking”. Nominal means “YES!!!! GET IN THERE!!!!!!”

New Horizons had not only made it through the Pluto system, but along the way it had made all the observations and measurements it had been asked to, had carried out all its planned maneouvres, and had come out the other side in tip top shape.


The celebrations in the auditorium were heartfelt and genuine, and after a short break to let everyone calm down the New Horizons team was brought out to be applauded and cheered by the crowd, bounding down the steps towards the stage, smiling beaming smiles, shaking hands.

stern stairs

That’s I Alan Stern running down the steps like a contestant on The Price Is Right…

manager steps

…and that’s Alice Bowman, looking quite amazed by the whole thing.

Some looked like they’d just won the lottery, others looked utterly bemused. Some looked close to tears, others just weary to their bones, but one by one they fulled the stage and basked in the applause of the crowd…

team 2


After speeches by various NASA top brass, and a really great speech from PI Alan Stern…

smiling stern after signal

…there was time for a Q&A with the audience, and again Alice Bowman, and her love for what she does, shone from the stage…

mission manager

Eventually the media briefing crawled to an end, everyone clearly shattered after their long day, and once it became clear no new images were going to be released I decided to finally call it a day myself, having been up since before 6am the previous morning. Beside me, where she had stayed for most of the day, Peggy was fast asleep, snoring quietly, legs kicking and ears twitching in a happy cat dream, so I left her to it and went to bed…


Now? More waiting! As I type this New Horizons is more than 770,000 km past Pluto, on its way deeper into the Kuiper Belt, and the NH team are going through the first batches of data sent back by the probe since it passed through the Pluto system. At 8pm tonight, UK time, there will be a very important media briefing when we will get to see what we’ve all been waiting for – the first high resolution, close-up views of the surface of Pluto! Will we see mountains, canyons and plains? Will we see individual craters, cracks in the ice, huge boulders? We’ll have to wait and see.

Try to be patient. It will be worth it!