At 7:49 a.m. (ET) Tuesday, the New Horizons spacecraft recorded images of Pluto at its closest proximity since the probe launched nine years ago, back when Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet.
The mission was received by a cheering crowd of astronomers and scientists — but they're not the only ones who should be amazed by this landmark achievement. Here are five reasons the New Horizons mission is a big deal:
1. It's big news for the advancement of technology. The New Horizons spacecraft is Pluto's first visitor in its 4.5 billion-year existence. It took the spacecraft nine years to make the 3 billion-mile trip. This means the technology harbored by the spacecraft, which is said to be the size of a baby grand piano, is at least a decade old.
Nonetheless, NASA managed to deliver detailed photographs and data, making the mission an astounding technological achievement.
2. We finally know what Pluto really looks like: Scientists released the first close-up images of Pluto and Charon, its largest moon, and now we have a face to put to the dwarf planet's name. Scientists have also been able to observe a range of mountains near the planet's equator, thanks to the New Horizons photos.
3. It's the first time several people are seeing a new planet ... and the last time for us all. The 1960s had Venus and Mars, the 1970s enjoyed a trifecta of Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn, and the 1980s relished in the sights of Neptune and Uranus.
This week, we were given the chance to see a new world for the first time again. Bittersweet as it may be, this mission also means the end of the initial tour of all nine planets in our solar system.
4. The mission will teach us more about Earth. Scientists wanted primarily to learn more about Pluto because it is believed to have formed from similar materials as Earth, meaning it also went through similar early stages of growth. The new data will help scientists understand more about the place we call home.
5. It reminds us how little we are, and how vast the world beyond Earth is. Pluto takes 248 Earth years to orbit the sun, so one orbit spans the entirety of U.S. history. This means when Pluto was last in the position it's currently in, humans didn't even know it existed.
This mission just proved that quite a lot can change in a single orbit.
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