From an editorial Thursday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Sometimes all it takes is a quick call home to assure folks that everything is all right. After a nine-year, 3 billion-mile journey that would take it within 7,750 miles of Pluto, that’s what NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft did.
The planned 12-hour communications blackout was unnerving for NASA scientists waiting for confirmation that New Horizons hadn’t encountered disaster during the last leg of its historic flyby of the dwarf planet.
Fortunately, all the angst was unnecessary. The beautiful close-up images of Pluto that New Horizons transmitted this week brought to a close the most dangerous phase of one of the most wildly successful unmanned adventures in NASA’s history.
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It is breathtaking to realize that a spacecraft traveling at 31,000 mph made it through billions of miles of space and ultimately to Pluto’s moon-crowded neighborhood without colliding into a single pebble-sized object that could have destroyed it or compromised its mission. That is a miracle in itself.
The Pluto mission marks the end of America’s quest to survey all of our solar system’s planets, but its long-range mission continues.
New Horizons is poised for a journey deep into the Kuiper Belt, where tens of thousands of minor planets are believed to exist. We have no map for where the probe is going or what it will encounter. In a few years it will be beyond radio contact, so the time we have with it now is precious.
Should it encounter something truly spectacular out there, NASA wouldn’t mind another call home, even if it is collect.