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Pluto – from a dot to a world

It’s hard to believe it’s now two months since the NEW HORIZONS probe whooshed past Pluto, watched by millions of fascinated people all around the world. What a day that was! To the science team’s obvious delight, and pride, the first images beamed back to Earth – showing wide plains of patterned ice, towering mountains and even glaciers – banished forever the idea of Pluto being a boring, faraway ice ball, and at the time a justifiably jubilant PI Alan Stern and his team promised us that the best was yet to come.

They weren’t wrong.

Yesterday a new batch of NEW HORIZONS images was released, and within minutes they were spreading across the internet faster than a video of a sleepy kitten falling off a sofa. When I went on Twitter mid-evening I was greeted with a dozen or more breathless Tweets from spacey people I follow, all along the lines of “OMG! Pluto!” or “WOW! PLUTO!!!!” so I knew that some new pictures had come out, and could guess from the less than subtle tweets that they were probably pretty impressive. I clicked on the link –

WHUMPFF!!!!!!!!

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WHUMPFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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WHHHHHUUUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMPPPPPPPFFFFFFFF!!!!!!

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I think it was a good five minutes before I was able to look away from my laptop screen when that first picture appeared on it. I just sat here, staring at it, staring into it, with my brain feeling a bit fuzzy. I know “iconic” is a ridiculously over-used word nowadays – any image that is even half-decent is swiftly labelled “iconic” by someone – but I genuinely believe that that second image IS iconic, and one of the most striking, most beautiful “space” photographs ever taken. It’s right up there with the classics. Everyone will have different opinions on which images those are, of course, but  think there are some we can all agree on…

collage icons

…and I think that image of Pluto, showing its surface in jaw-dropping detail, as you would see it if you were flying over it, deserves to be thought of in the same way and will go down in history as a classic, as important.

I mean, just look at that second image again…

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Just look at what it shows… countless mountains of ice, casting long shadows across vast plains of ancient ice… meandering valleys with mist in them… it’s beautiful, just beautiful.

Inevitably, cos I can’t stop myself tinkering, I took a couple of crops from it to isolate and highlight certain areas and features…

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Really love that last one, showing the mountains curving towards the distant horizon, it really gives you a sense of flying over Pluto, looking down on its incredible landscape.

These pictures will be very hard to beat; we’ve been to and seen most of the worlds and moons in our solar system now, and there are few “firsts” left to take. Yes, we’ll have better and clearer pictures of Mars, Jupiter’s moons and comets in the future, but going to and photographing Pluto was a special case, a real landmark event, and I’m sorely tempted to think that we won’t see pictures with as much impact as these again until we get the first images of an extra-solar planet – a world orbiting another star, way out there in space. That won’t happen for a long, time, a LONG time, but one day it will. One day we’ll – well, our descendants will, I doubt any of us will live to see it! – thrill to the first images sent back by a space-probe sent out to explore an alien solar system. What we see will be fantastic and new and will blow our minds, as it sinks in that we’re looking at pictures of a planet whirling around another star. That’s how I felt when I saw these Pluto images. They show Pluto is so much more dramatic, so much more beautiful than we dared dream. Yet, at the same time, familiar too, with mountains, valleys, and plains not too different from Earth’s.

So… a good time to just think about how far we’ve come…

collage world…and, of course, to say a huge and sincere THANK YOU to the New Horizons team, both for allowing all of us to share in their adventure and for sharing their incredible images with us so quickly and so enthusiastically.

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Right from the start, just like the NAVCAM and Outreach teams on the ROSETTA mission, the NEW HORIZONS team has embraced public involvement in this mission, and has made sure that the media and the public see their breathtaking images as quickly as possible. We can only be grateful that the OSIRIS team on the ROSETTA mission isn’t in charge of the NEW HORIZONS images, because we’d not be seeing these stunning pictures for many months yet!

nightmare osirisMore images of Pluto taken by NEW HORIZONS should be released later today, so keep an eye out for those online.

We live in incredible times. Enjoy them everyone, Savour them. And on the next clear night, look up at the sky and remember that, for all our faults, and problems, for all our stupidity and foolishness, sometimes, just sometimes, the human race can do something incredible – like send a golden robot billions of miles across space to photograph a world of misty mountains, on its way to the stars…

2 Responses

  1. Stu, is it OK to repost that OSIRIS meme? Do you own the copyright?

  2. Alan Stern was right on all those years when asked what he expected to see at Pluto. His answer: “Something wonderful.”

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