One Year On From New Horizons, We Spoke To The Man Behind The Daring Mission To Pluto

Alan Stern (left) celebrates with his team, one year ago today. NASA/SWRI

One year ago today, you may remember the little news story that New Horizons became the first spacecraft ever to visit Pluto.

Okay, we jest. It was front page news the world over. Time flies, eh?

Well, now, 12 months on, we decided to catch up with the brains behind the mission, Alan Stern, to see just what we’ve learned, what’s left to answer about Pluto, and what we can expect next from New Horizons. Alan, who is the principal investigator on the mission, first dreamed up the idea of sending a spacecraft to Pluto in 1989. Last year, that dream was realized.

Check out our interview with him below.

Hi Alan. What’s it been like to be involved with the New Horizons mission?

"For most people on the mission, they’d never been a part of anything like this. I’d never been on a 'first' mission before. I’d been on a flyby of an asteroid, been on missions to Mars. Most of us said we’d never be involved in something like this again."

What was it like when the first data came in?

"After the flyby, we started to download data, and all of a sudden it’s like you’re orbiting Pluto. Every week it’s raining spectra and data types of all kinds. And it’s still continuing. We’ve got all the way to October 'till we finish. In fact, we’ll be getting data after Rosetta’s over [in September], and we’ve been gone from Pluto for a year!"

One of the many stunning Pluto images from New Horizons. NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Have you been busy since the flyby?

"We’ve been writing papers like crazy. About 40 peer-reviewed papers, over 150 technical presentations, and close to 300 public talks. So, we’ve been busy [laughs]."

What’s been the most surprising scientific result?

"I would place two things at the very top of our scientific results. The most surprising is Pluto’s complexity. If you actually look at the number of land forms per million square kilometers, compared to other objects all around the Solar System, Pluto ranks by Earth and Mars, and everything else is just boring by comparison.

"Secondly, Pluto’s active on this massive scale geologically, 4 billion years after its formation. And that was not predicted or expected, and really has the geophysics-types scratching their heads how to explain it."

What had you expected to find at Pluto? Something akin to the dwarf planet Ceres, a gray and mostly barren world?

"We expected it to be much more interesting than Ceres. I don’t think many people on the science team at all expected Ceres, a typical gotta-be-a-planetary-scientist to love it [world]. 'Ooh, there’s a white dot!' [laughs]. The nearest analog we had before the flyby was a former Kuiper Belt planet called Triton, that is now captured into orbit around Neptune. But this is not Triton, this is like Triton on massive illegal steroids."

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