Aiming at Pluto’s Heart — Part 3

New Horizons — $700 Million

Abhinav Yadav
4 min readDec 18, 2023

So far we have covered Pluto’s discovery, scientific struggle to study it closely and eventual liftoff of New Horizons spacecraft in 2006. Then as the spacecraft slingshot around Jupiter & gained unimaginable speed, Pluto itself got reclassified. In this series finale, let’s cover the majesty of the Plutonian system, the awesomeness of human perseverance and the ongoing story of an unstoppable super-craft.

New Horizons in space (credit)

Draining the putt

New Horizons’ path for its 3 billion mile journey had to be calculated precisely. Like putting a golf ball from the other side of the planet. If the calculations were slightly off, we would have missed the putt by miles. The length of the putt was so long that hibernation could have caused technical issues and our spacecraft could have kept rolling downhill, until the end of time. If there were debris or planetary rings close to Pluto, we could have hit something and landed in the bunker.

The only major glitch happened 10 days before the main flyby and threatened to derail everything. The team mysteriously lost all communication to the spacecraft and had to scramble to figure out what had happened. Luckily the spacecraft called back to say it had gone into safe mode. Which turned out to be the right thing for it to do.

The reason for this anomaly was eventually figured out. Because of the simultaneous uploading of flyby commands and compressing of images, the main computer had overloaded. At which point, the backup computer stepped in to assume command. But all the flyby commands had gotten wiped out and the spacecraft didn’t know its next move as it helplessly floated in space.

So the team had another race on its hands — upload the flyby details in the correct sequence or watch the spacecraft sail past Pluto and into the interstellar void. The stakes were even higher as there was a 10 hour communication delay due to the spacecraft’s distance at over 3 billion miles. With all these odds stacked against it, the team rallied to do months of work in 72 hours and got the spacecraft ready for its flyby of Pluto.

Some might call what followed as luck, I would say it was a reward for our leap of faith and sheer determination — NASA drained this putt like a pro!

Scientific Goldmine

After it’s decade-long journey, the New Horizons mission was extremely successful in achieving all of its primary objectives with a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The spacecraft also visited Pluto’s five moons, Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. It accumulated enough scientific data that it took 15 months just to receive all of it back.

Various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015. Credit

A tiny pixel became a scientific gold mine and its compositional diversity clearly showed. It went from an astronomer’s world to a geologist’s world — weird ice floes, massive surface cracks, impact craters, mountains of water ice, glaciers of nitrogen, signs of volcanic activity and a blue atmosphere of nitrogen. This was not a boring place.

Left: Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. Right: Close up view of Wright Mons, one of two potential cryovolcanoes (Credit)

Even chemically there was a lot going on with bright & dark spots. All these details were clearly visible in the images. The scientists could now start considering the forces operating on Pluto that transferred energy from one form to another. Like on Earth — forces like wind, tectonic plates and other factors that shape our world. Similar forces had shaped the Plutonian system.

Planetary scientists had not had this much excitement over each new image since the Voyager spacecrafts. New Horizons turned out to be a rightful successor to the legendary spacecrafts of the past.


Image of Arrokoth (Credit)

New Horizons continued its journey beyond Pluto and most recently took detailed images of a smaller object named Arrokoth (Ultima Thule) in the Kuiper Belt. Arrokoth was another billion miles out from Pluto and much dimmer. It is also representative of a primordial building block. Discovered after the launch, in 2014, the object had only completed 1% of its orbit before the flyby.

In April 2022, New Horizons mission was extended a second time to potentially conduct multi-disciplinary observations of relevance to the solar system and NASA’s Heliophysics and Astrophysics Divisions.

The mission will continue through the Kuiper Belt as it has enough fuel to last into 2030’s.

As this workhorse continues its journey through the cosmic ocean, what did the $700 Million investment give us? Perhaps a chance to challenge our engineering skills & scientific prowess, explore distant corners of the Solar System to understand our beginning and ultimately, build a deeper connection with the cosmos. I for one think it was money well spent!



Abhinav Yadav

Engineer. Optimist. Science Communicator 🚀 🔭🌌