Behind the Mission That Brought Back Pictures of Pluto

By Joanna Neilson, ’17

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By looking through the eyes of Will Grundy, Ph.D., a co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission, a different perspective can be gained on the mission that took place over the past nine years and recently took the first high resolution images of Pluto in July 2015.

“We were getting progressively better images down for months before the closest approach, “ Grundy said. “So there was a mix of interpretation along with preparation that extended over many months leading up to the high resolution images in mid-July.”

In order to make sure nothing went wrong, the New Horizons team members had to double check and make sure everything was running properly.

“Preparation tasks included making sure the surface composition team was ready to process specific datasets as soon as we got them.,” said Grundy. “That includes making sure the instrument on the spacecraft was working properly, the commands to compress and downlink the data were correct, and the software we had developed for analyzing the data was also working.”

Despite all the work that entailed, the mission itself was more exciting than it was anxious.

“It wasn’t really stressful at all,” Grundy said. “We had all been waiting so long to see Pluto up close for the first time that we were very excited, but like little kids getting excited about Christmas, not something to get stressed about.”

Now that they’ve already flown past Pluto, the New Horizons team is preparing for the next target, 2014 MU6, which is an object located in the Kuiper Belt.