New Horizons Pluto mission is up there with the moon landing in American space achievement

If ever there were a perfect use for the phrase, “I can’t even,” this is it. Today we saw a high-resolution picture of a world over a billion miles away, taken by a small probe launched nine years ago on a mission that has been over 25 years in the making. And oh, yeah, that tiny probe not only took pictures, but it (presumably) took a variety of scientific readings, passing just 7,500 miles from Pluto. That’s less than the average diameter of the Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s CLOSE.

I hardly have words for how absolutely awesome it is that I am sitting here, at my computer, in my room, looking at a picture of freaking Pluto that was sent from a billion miles away. It’s not a rendering, it’s not a telescope image, it’s the real actual thing. We have pictures of ALL the planets. (When New Horizons was launched, Pluto was still classified as a planet. It counts.)

In just a few minutes (9:30 pm ET), NASA will hold a media briefing announcing whether New Horizons was able to collect any data as it made its closest approach to Pluto this morning. If anything interesting happens, I will make live updates here, or you can watch the livestream at NASA TV.

[9:22 pm ET]: Current status: SPAAAAAAAACEEEEE!!!

[9:30]: Here we go!

[9:32]: One heck of a standing ovation for the NH team. There like rockstars in that theater. And one of them was totally carrying a stuffed Pluto dog. A woman after my own heart, clearly.

[9:37]: They received a signal! There’s still science to do!

[9:41]: The United States is the first country to have visited EVERY planet in the solar system. (Gotta catch ’em all.)

[9:44]: Several kids in attendance who were born the day New Horizons launched. (Jan. 19, 2006)

[9:48]: John Grunsfeld, Alan Stern, Glen Fountain, and Alice Bowman on the panel for the Q&A. Even more pics expected tomorrow at 3 pm ET. Word is, they’re amazeballs. (Forgive any misspellings of names.)

[9:51]: “Nothing like a safe mode event to sharpen your senses.” (Grunsfeld)

First flyby of Pluto was by Mariner IV in the 1950s.

[9:53]: Aww…they call Bowman (Mission Ops) “Mom” like we call our programming director at MomoCon “Mom.”

[9:55]: “One small step for New Horizons, one giant leap for mankind.” (Stern)

“A half-century long endeavor that will long be a legacy of our time” (Stern)

[9:57]: I’m pretty sure no one on this team has had a good night’s sleep in days.

[9:59]: “Do what you’re passionate about. Don’t do something because it’s easy. Do something because you want to do it. Give yourself that challenge, and you will not be sorry for it.” (Bowman)

[10:00]: The only data that came “home” tonight was engineering data letting us know that everything is ok. It broadcasted a systems report, then went right back to doing science, which we should start receiving tomorrow.

[10:02]: Tomorrow’s dataset should have new, even higher resolution imagery, spectrometer data and color data. It will begin sending at 5:50 am ET and will be released at 3 pm. They’re calling it the “New York Times” dataset because they expect it to be very interesting.

[10:04]: ALICE spectrometers can detect high energy electrons, which they discovered by mistake when it was passing by Jupiter.

[10:06]: Adorable kid asks “What is the extended mission goal?”

Answers – “To explore primordial Kuiper Belt objects and get funded to do exactly do that” and “To go where no New Horizons spacecraft has gone before.”

[10:09]: NASA received the NH engineering data signal at 8:52:37 pm ET.

[10:11]: They’re teasing the closest approach photos HARD. I mean, they were taken from pretty close, so I feel like there’s more “I can’t even” to be had.

And that’s the show, folks. I’ll be back at 3 pm tomorrow to flail some more.

[10:15]: Ok, one more thing. I’m watching the replay of the signal acquisition from earlier, and it’s just so much happiness. I might cry. All the feels.

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