Nova (1974–…): Season 42, Episode 11 - Chasing Pluto - full transcript

NOVA captures New Horizons' historic flyby of Pluto, the culmination of the spacecraft's nine-year, three-billion-mile journey to reveal the first ever detailed images of this strange, icy world at the very edge of our solar system.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Pluto, an icy dwarf planet
three billion miles from Earth

Our most powerful telescopes
see only a blur, until now

We have lift-off

A space probe called
New Horizons is on its way

This is an epic journey

To the far reaches
of our solar system

It's going farther

than any exploration
by human beings ever has

To capture images
of a mysterious world

that may hold the secret to the
origins of our solar system

Are there going to be surprises?


But not all the surprises
are good

About 1:55 p m local,

we've lost signal
with the spacecraft

Could it be we hit something?

But a last-minute rescue
saves the day

as Pluto comes into focus,
revealing a world stranger

than we ever imagined


There's a heart on it!

"Chasing Pluto,"
right now on NOVA.

January 19, 2006

An Atlas 5 rocket,
a 212-foot powerhouse,

is prepped for launch
at Cape Canaveral

It was one of those days
where you say to yourself:

This is it

Project succeeds or fails today

Because when things go bad
on launch,

they usually go bad
in a spectacular way

T minus five, four,
three, two, one

We have ignition and liftoff

of NASA's New Horizons

on a voyage to visit
the planet Pluto and beyond

It's the fastest launch
ever recorded...

36,000 miles per hour

New Horizons needs
all the speed it can muster,

on a journey that will take it
clear across the solar system,

to attempt something unique
in the history of spaceflight:

get an up-close
and personal look at Pluto,

a mysterious, distant world

unlike anything
we've explored before

Back on Earth,

at the Johns Hopkins Applied
Physics Laboratory,

the mission operations team
for New Horizons

is not quite ready to celebrate

Once the rocket took off,

there was a great feeling of joy

and then you hold your breath
for a while

because you're not done
until you get the signal back

from the spacecraft
that everything's okay

We don't have a mission

until we know that spacecraft
is communicating with us

And so they wait

Everything is a concern

Things we've thought about
we know we've solved

To try and anticipate
so many eventualities,

it's the challenge
of spaceflight

Almost an hour passes

And then, Mission Ops receives
the first signal

from New Horizons.

Scientists turn
to each other and go,

"I love you, man!"

It was an astonishingly
happy time

And that's the greatest feeling,

because now we know we have
a mission to Pluto

This is just the first
of many challenges to come

on a journey that will take
almost a decade

Just nine hours
after leaving the launch pad,

it was already crossing
the orbit of the moon

A trip that took
Apollo astronauts three days

But even traveling tens
of thousands of miles an hour,

it will take over nine years
for New Horizons

to reach its destination,
to explore the far reaches

of our solar system, more than
three billion miles from Earth

Beyond the planets
we've come to know

Mars with its rocky red surface,

the gas giant Jupiter
with its raging storm,

and Saturn
with its stunning rings

Uranus, where turbulent winds
blow over 500 miles an hour,

and Neptune, a planet
so far from the Sun,

it takes 165 years
to complete just one orbit

Finally New Horizons
will arrive at Pluto,

a world we can only picture

with the help of artwork
like this, at least for now

Who can tell us more
about the planets?

Back in the 1950s,
every grade schooler

was taught there were
nine planets,

Pluto being the last
and loneliest

Everybody loved Pluto because
it was this funny oddball

sitting out there
at the very edge

You don't find that kind
of name recognition

and emotional connection
and interest level for Uranus,

or Mercury,
or going down the list,

but somehow Pluto just naturally
attracts people's attention

What makes Pluto so popular?

It may have something to do
with a playful bloodhound

named Pluto the pup

It turns out the Disney
character made its debut

around the same time the planet
was discovered

Over the years we've gotten
to know this beloved little pup

The same can't be said for this
mysterious little world

The truth is,
Pluto and its moons

have only been observed
from billions of miles away

Our best images,
nothing more than a blur

In fact, one of the biggest,
baddest space telescopes

in our arsenal, the Hubble,

which takes stunning images
of enormous distant galaxies,

can only capture these pixelated
images of Pluto,

because not only is it
far away, it's really small

But even at this resolution,

they suggest
something intriguing

Using these precious pixels,

a computer-generated image
reveals Pluto has

a surprisingly varied surface

The light areas
could be miles and miles of ice

The ices are the most
obvious signature that you see,

but you can discern that there's
other components there as well

We just don't know exactly
what they're made of

But here's what we do know:

one of the few planets
in the solar system

with such a varied surface
is planet Earth

We also know that Pluto has
a rather bizarre atmosphere

During its 248-year orbit,
as Pluto gets closer to the Sun,

its frozen surface starts
to thaw

and its atmosphere
slowly emerges

What we see in the atmosphere

is gases that are coming
off the surface,

creating a temporary
atmosphere, perhaps

Pluto has a unique type
of atmosphere

in this outer part
of the solar system

that we've never studied before

An area so distant and elusive

we knew almost nothing about it
until the 1990s,

when powerful new telescopes
discovered lonely little Pluto

wasn't so lonely after all

It's part of a region
in the outer solar system

beyond the orbit of Neptune
called the Kuiper Belt

And it is enormous

Billions of miles from the Sun,

the Kuiper Belt is filled
with hundreds of thousands

of icy objects

While they may look
like asteroids,

which are made of rock
and metal,

these objects, hidden in the
solar system's deep freeze,

are made of a mixture
of rock and ice

These are basically
frozen remnants

of the early part
of the solar system

that are still in the freezer

You can start to read
this fossil record

of how the solar system evolved
by looking at these objects

You can't say
for the New Horizons mission,

"Been there, done that,"
because it hasn't

We've already explored
the terrestrial planet region,

the giant planet region

Now we're exploring

a completely new portion
of the solar system

that's never been touched before

We don't know what we're going
to find, we really don't

And I think that that's what
really makes this so exciting

How do you design a spacecraft
that can survive

a three-billion-mile journey
to parts unknown?

Any time you explore
something new,

there's always a little risk

The New Horizons mission

faced a huge number
of challenges

We're going to the outskirts
of the solar system, you know,

30 times farther
from the Sun than the Earth

And so in order to get there
in a reasonable amount of time

we had to build the lightest
possible spacecraft

that we could,

put it on the largest rocket
we could

There was no opportunity
to fly big solar arrays

because the sunlight
is just too faint,

so we carry
a nuclear-powered source

We have a suite of instruments,
seven instruments

to do very different things

And they weigh less than about
70 pounds, all of them together

Seven scientific instruments

not much bigger
than a grand piano

with whimsical names
like Pepsi, Swap,

and an antenna named Rex

Two are named
after the lead characters

in the 1950s television show
The Honeymooners,

Ralph and Alice

All of these instruments
will analyze Pluto's surface

and geology, and reveal secrets
about its mysterious atmosphere

Back in the 1980s,
one of the best ways

to observe Pluto's atmosphere
was with this,

a C-141 cargo plane

with a makeshift observatory
on its side

The Kuiper Airborne Observatory

was not what you'd call
a first-class ride

The Kuiper Airborne Observatory
is not built for comfort

You're on headsets
the whole time

It's very loud, it's very cold

The telescope, it's
in the middle of an airplane

It bounces around

But by flying a telescope
above the weather,

they had a chance
to capture a rare event

called a stellar occultation

During this event,
an object, like Pluto,

passes in front of a bright star
blocking its light

If the object has an atmosphere,
the light gradually fades out,

then slowly fades back up again

But if it doesn't,
the light abruptly disappears,

and then quickly reappears

This is a recording
of what happened

onboard the Kuiper
Airborne Observatory

the night of June 9, 1988,
when a group of researchers

were determined to find out
if Pluto has an atmosphere

The light behind Pluto
slowly faded,

and the crew made history

I was fortunate enough
to be involved

I would call that the beginning
of my being an astronomer,

and it's a pretty good beginning

One of the instruments
onboard New Horizons

that's designed to study Pluto's
elusive atmosphere is Alice

This model is an actual size
model of Alice

Alice is an ultraviolet

It's a telescope that breaks up
light into a rainbow

Every chemical element
reflects and absorbs light

in a unique way,

creating a pattern
as distinct as a fingerprint

Hydrogen's fingerprint
looks like this,

while nitrogen's looks like this

Powerful Earth-based telescopes
have already detected molecules

of nitrogen, methane and carbon
monoxide on Pluto's surface

and in its atmosphere

We suspect it has

a number of others that we
simply can't detect

As the spacecraft flies
just a few thousand miles

above Pluto, Alice will search
for those fingerprints

Then, at the end of the flyby,
the spacecraft will turn around

to give Alice a one-of-a-kind
view of Pluto's atmosphere,

as seen through the light
of the Sun

We can use the Sun
as our light source

to probe the atmosphere

and look for those fingerprints
of certain types

of atoms and molecules

While Alice probes
Pluto's atmosphere,

her partner, Ralph,
an infrared spectrometer,

will be hard at work searching
for those chemical fingerprints

of molecules on Pluto's surface

We want to know what's causing

the very bright surfaces
on Pluto, which we think

is exotic snowflakes of
molecular nitrogen and methane

But there are other regions
that seem to be devoid

of those snowflakes
and are probably much redder,

darker hydrocarbon deposits

Ralph will finally reveal
what these strange,

dark regions are made of

But to get up-close
and personal images of Pluto

requires an instrument with
a one-of-a-kind telephoto lens

The largest imager on board
New Horizons, named LORRI,

will capture extraordinary
images of Pluto's surface

LORRI will take pictures
so detailed

that if it was flying
over New York City,

you could see the Hudson River,
the East River,

even Central Park

To put this in perspective,
this image of the Big Apple

was taken by a satellite

traveling about 400 miles
above Earth

LORRI is so powerful,

it could capture
the same amount of detail

from more than 7,000 miles
above Earth

But sending a telescope
with a lens like this

into the grueling subzero
temperatures of the Kuiper Belt

is risky business

When you have a telescope,

it's opened to space,

and so it's cooling
through that opening

The result is that you're
putting part of camera cold,

part of it warm,

and that changes
the shape of the telescope

and that tends to put it
out of focus

And you can end up with pictures
that look like this

To solve this problem

they turn to a material
found in bulletproof vests

What makes vests
like this so strong

is a compound
called silicon carbide

LORRI is made out of
a special version of it

which is able to tolerate
temperature gradients

without distorting its shape

But it's also very strong
and very light

There's a lot of things
that might go wrong,

and we've tried to anticipate
all those things

and work out contingency plans,

and contingency plans
for those contingency plans

We've been working for years
to get the spacecraft ready,

prepare for everything
you could think of

In the end, it just

You know, you just have
to sit there and wait,

and it just either works
or it doesn't

For the New Horizons team,
waiting to find out

if all their hard work
will pay off

just may be the toughest
challenge of all

During the Pluto encounter,

the spacecraft's
basically pre-programmed

to do everything on its own

If it gets into trouble,
we can't help

We can't give it a call and say,

"Whoops, you're looking
at the wrong thing

Adjust your sights
a little bit to the left"

That's because when
the spacecraft flies by Pluto,

it will take
four-and-a-half hours

for a radio signal
to reach Earth

and another
four-and-a-half hours

for instructions
to get back to the spacecraft

If something went wrong,
it would be more than nine hours

before we could tell it
to do something

The most important science

is happening really only
over about a 12-hour period

The timing has to be precise
because the onboard commands

all have a predetermined time
that this is supposed to happen

If that time changes too much,

we'll get a lot of pictures
of black space

and we'll miss the science

February 28, 2007

New Horizons has been en route
for a little over a year

Back at mission operations

at the Johns Hopkins
Applied Physics Laboratory,

the team prepares
for the spacecraft's

first real test since launch

As New Horizons nears Jupiter,

it must hit a mark
just 500 miles wide,

where it will get pulled
into the gas giant's gravity

and get flung out

At that point, it will be
traveling a lot faster

Think of it like a clever
maneuver used in roller derby

called "the whip"

One skater pulls another,

propelling her forward
with greater velocity

That's what Jupiter's gravity
will hopefully do

for New Horizons.

At mission operations,
the tension is palpable,

especially for the mission
operations manager,

Alice Bowman,
also known as "MOM"

Status check

She has spent years
preparing for this moment,

and she knows all too well

what it means
if this maneuver should fail

It would take years longer

to get to Pluto
if you did not have that flyby

If you think nine years
is a long time,

adding another couple years
onto that,

that would have been intolerable

The clock is ticking

MOM, along with
the Mission Ops team,

waits to receive telemetry
from the spacecraft

This data will reveal
whether New Horizons

successfully pulled off
the gravity assist or not

Red is bad, green is good,

gray means you don't have
any data

Finally, they hear
from the spacecraft

PI, this is MOM on Pluto One

Spacecraft telemetry
for all subsystems is nominal

Spacecraft is outward bound
from Jupiter

and we're on our way to Pluto

So far, so great

This is good

By stealing some momentum

from Jupiter
along the way to Pluto,

we can actually increase
the speed of the spacecraft

by about 20% and cut three years
off the travel time

And at the same time,

because in order to do
the Jupiter flyby

you end up coming
fairly close to it,

it gives you an opportunity
to do some great science

It was the only time we were
going to have large objects

for the cameras
to actually point to and say,

"Okay, are we doing this right?"

We used all the instruments
on New Horizons,

but LORRI was prominent

Okay, thar she blows

Oh, wow!

Look at that!

And we got both of them,
we got both of them

It's beautiful!

From more than
a million miles away,

LORRI captures a sequence
of images

of the eruption of a volcano
on Jupiter's moon Io

It was the first time

that a time-lapse
had ever been made

of any volcano anywhere
in the universe off the Earth

So it was really unique

It's another plume!

Perfect image


We were extremely lucky
we got these fantastic movies

It made all those sleepless
nights and all that hard work

very much worth it

After the gravity assist,

New Horizons
goes into hibernation

Only essential systems
are up and running

This limits the amount of wear
and tear on the equipment

For most of its nine-year
journey, it will be asleep,

but once a week, the spacecraft
phones home to MOM

This is MOM on Pluto One,
status check

And MOM lets the whole team know

if all systems
are in working order

As New Horizons makes its way
across the solar system

to the last and loneliest planet
to be explored,

back on Earth, a revolution
in astronomy is taking place

After 75 years as the solar
system's ninth planet,

Pluto is getting
its walking papers

Pluto was, since 1930, a planet

He had stature, he had friends

Could it be the final indignity

for the farthest and smallest
planet in our solar system?

♪ Rock on, Pluto, you'll always
be a planet to me ♪

Size doesn't matter!

The public takes to the streets
to fight for Pluto

Go, Pluto!

Pluto forever!

It's been America's
favorite planet

since it was discovered
back in the 1930s

by the unlikeliest
of planet hunters

Clyde Tombaugh was
a self-educated farm boy

who attended
a one-room schoolhouse

His first job in astronomy
included cleaning telescopes

and sweeping up
at the Lowell Observatory

He spent the rest of his time
searching for something

that could be causing
disturbances in Neptune's orbit:

the mysterious "Planet X"

Every few nights,

he placed a photosensitive
glass plate on the telescope,

securing it
so it would not shift

Then he exposed the plate
for one hour

to the universe

During that time, the motorized
telescope slowly moved

to compensate
for Earth's rotation

Several days later,
he'd retrace his steps,

taking pictures
of the same sections of the sky

he had photographed earlier

Then, using an ingenious device
called a blink comparator,

Clyde aligned the two images

to carefully examine
their differences

The blink comparator enabled him
to shift back and forth,

searching for the subtlest
of changes

Although the human eye is good
at spotting differences,

finding a dim celestial object
billions of miles away

was a daunting task

Month after month,

he forged ahead
through a harsh, cold winter

He almost froze to death

one night because his fingers
got so numb,

he couldn't get
the trap door open

to get out of the dome

They were having
a lot of problems

with the photographic plates
breaking in the cold weather,

and he invented
a new plate holder

that would keep the plates
from breaking,

and that's what led
to the discovery

After patiently searching
for almost a year,

a determined Clyde
finally found a tiny dot

slowly moving
across the night sky

Can you see it?

Here it is

Two months later,
the Lowell Observatory

proudly announced that
a young assistant

had discovered the ninth planet
in our solar system

Because of the discovery,

my dad got his college education

Otherwise, he probably
would not have been able

to afford to go to college

The discovery was, I would say,

the driver of our life
in many ways

After discovering Pluto,
Clyde taught astronomy,

and for decades to come,
he searched for another planet

in the far reaches
of the solar system

But as hard as he
and other astronomers looked...

And they looked hard...
Nobody found anything

Until astronomers David Jewitt
and Jane Luu

took on the challenge

They started a search
that would take a lot longer

than they could ever imagine

Why did it take so long?

It was a matter of technology
catching up with the problem

While it's easy
to see distant stars

because they radiate light,

other celestial bodies
are much harder to see

That's because light
has to travel

all the way from our Sun
to the object,

reflect off its surface,

and then make the long journey
back to Earth

By then, it's barely visible

David and Jane hoped that
advances in digital detectors,

now standard
in today's smartphones,

would help them see
a whole lot more

After searching for five years,
they finally found something

Here is the set
of discovery images

for the first object

So you can see this object

drifting from this picture
to this one to this one

It's drifting slowly to the left

When they found several more
of these slow-moving objects,

David and Jane could finally
declare Pluto is not alone

In fact, it's got
plenty of neighbors

They named this new region
of the solar system

the Kuiper Belt,
after Gerard Kuiper,

the astronomer who proposed
its existence back in the 1950s

The discovery of the Kuiper Belt

expanded our understanding
of the solar system

in a profound way,

but it also put Pluto's
planetary status in jeopardy

Is it a planet

or a Kuiper Belt object,
one of many?

My Dad knew there were rumblings
in the wind, and it upset him

It certainly was not easy
for my father

But the final blow
was yet to come

A few years later,
a young astronomer

decided to look for more objects
in the outer solar system

Mike Brown was determined
to do something really big:

find a Kuiper Belt object
larger than Pluto

We even thought
we might be finding things

the size of Mars,
the size of the Earth

We really had no idea

So when we started off
doing this back in 1997,

it was pretty exciting to think
what might be out there

At the Palomar Observatory
in California,

Mike had access to the largest
digital camera on earth

The images were uploaded
to his computer,

where he analyzed them
every morning

With technology on his side,

the discoveries
just kept on coming

We found Quaoar,

which is an object
out in the Kuiper Belt

that's about half the size
of Pluto

The next year,
we found something

about three-quarters
the size of Pluto,

and in the following year,
we found this thing,

and it was so bright
and also moving so slowly,

moving so slowly
because it was so far away

After all this time,
Mike couldn't believe

he might finally have found
what he had been looking for

I looked at it and I thought,
"This can't be right"

If it's that bright
and moving that slowly,

it's the furthest thing
we've ever found

and it's the biggest
thing we've ever found,

and it must be bigger than
Pluto, and that's crazy

It was the first object
to be discovered

that could have been larger
than Pluto

That caused a ruckus because,
well, if Pluto's a planet,

then this has got to be
a planet, right?

And so what are we going
to call these things?

Most people really
didn't care that much

about this thing that
we just discovered

They wanted to know, "Well,
what does it mean for Pluto?"

It's like, "Oh, yeah, you found
something bigger than Pluto

But what does it mean
for Pluto?"

For the past century, the IAU...

The International
Astronomical Union...

Has been in charge
of naming celestial objects,

but it couldn't give
Mike's discovery a name

without knowing if it was
a Kuiper Belt object

or the tenth planet

I think it started
an interesting conversation

because we didn't really have
a definition for planets, okay?

You know, it came
from the Greek "wandering star,"

and we did need a better way
of classifying things

as being planets or small bodies
in the solar system

At the IAU meeting in Prague,
a vote was taken

on a new definition
of the word "planet"

Pluto's fate came down to
the phrasing of just one line:

"a planet has cleared the
neighborhood around its orbit"

Pluto resides
in a crowded neighborhood

filled with thousands
of Kuiper Belt objects

Unlike larger planets,
tiny Pluto

doesn't have enough gravity
to clear them out of its way

It also has
an extreme elliptical orbit

not on the same plane
as the rest of the planets

Eight major things
which dominate the solar system

are planets

They're all big

They go in circular orbits
in one disk around the Sun

And everything else
is much smaller

Those are not planets

So according to the IAU,
Pluto is not a planet;

it's a "dwarf planet"

There has been
a consensus developed

that Pluto is a dwarf planet,

and you know,
I have no problem with that

The controversy comes in
when you try to say

a dwarf planet is not a planet

Well, it seems a little

to have "planet" in the word,
the designation for an object,

and say somehow
it's not a planet

In a sense, this question

of how do you label
certain objects

is less important
than understanding

that objects like Pluto,
the Earth, Jupiter, exoplanets

come in a remarkable variety

and in remarkably
different configurations

across the universe

While Pluto may no longer be
the solar system's ninth planet,

it turns out
it's got plenty of company

Planetary scientists continue
to discover more dwarf planets,

giving them temporary nicknames
like "Santa" and "Easterbunny"

We've discovered that
the outer solar system

is littered with small planets

These are typically rocky
and icy objects

Many have atmospheres

Many, possibly most, have moons

All the things we're used to

in the planets
we're familiar with,

but in miniature

I think a decent analogy is

when you see a Chihuahua,
it's still a dog

because it has
the characteristics

of the canine species,
just in miniature

Not everyone agrees with
Alan Stern's canine analogy,

and as more Kuiper Belt objects
are discovered,

the question arises:
how did our outer solar system

end up with these
pint-sized dwarfs?

To answer that,
we may need to look back

at the birth of the solar system

We think

that the solar system
began to form

about 4 5 to 4 6
billion years ago

when a cloud of nebula,
a cloud of gas and dust,

fell in on itself
because of its own gravity

As it fell together,

it began to turn
into a great disc

of orbiting, swirling material

It's that disc of gas and dust

that we think turns into planets

You make a planet
from material sticking together

and building
larger and larger pieces

Scientists theorize
that planets form

when this material starts
to stick together

Pebbles turn into boulders,

boulders into mountain-sized

Comets turn into protoplanets

Protoplanets turn into planets

After objects reach a certain
threshold in their mass,

they can grow more rapidly
than they could before

because they have
substantial gravity

Gas giants like Jupiter
and Saturn

siphoned up massive amounts
of hydrogen and helium,

sweeping up everything in sight

It seems plausible that Pluto

originally formed
somewhat closer in to the Sun,

but then as those major planets
got larger and larger,

it got pushed
to a more distant orbit

We think that objects like Pluto
and the other Kuiper Belt bodies

are really the remains of that
process of planet formation

They are sometimes called

celestial objects that somehow
stopped growing

Dwarf planets were arrested

in the mid-stage
of planetary growth

They are actually
planetary embryos

And to study those objects

rather than objects that grew
to much larger scales

will give us a great window

into the process
of planetary formation

Perhaps we can find clues

in the surface of Pluto
and its composition

that point towards
that deep history

and in turn tell us
about the architecture

of the solar system as it is now

Where did that come from?

How did that happen?

Pluto may even hold clues

to unravel another great mystery

As far as we know,
the requirements for life

are water, energy,
and organic matter

A large number of dwarf planets

may have all of these

There are very reputable models
of Pluto

that suggest that there's
a vast interior ocean

and that these may be common
inside the dwarf planets

Wherever you have water,
then you have the potential...

And I want to stress that word,
"potential"... for biology

So it may be that
the dwarf planets

are not only
the most common kind of planet

in the solar system,

they may be
the most common abode for life

in the solar system

Clearly, organic chemistry,
carbon chemistry

can take place on the surface
of objects like comets

and probably
Kuiper Belt objects too

Whether or not that relates

to the existence
of life on Earth

I think is a totally open

But just understanding
the chemical richness

of our solar system
and the universe

is a big piece of the puzzle,

and it's a piece of the puzzle
that we need to solve

June 8, 2008

New Horizons has been
soaring through space

for more than two years

Today, it passes
the orbit of Saturn

In three more years,
it passes Uranus

It's spent half a decade
traveling through space,

and it's still running
like clockwork

But then the unexpected happens,

putting the entire mission
at risk

Images taken
by the Hubble Space Telescope

reveal Pluto has not one,
not two, not three, not four,

but five moons

All of these moons
probably all formed

in the same big
cosmic collision taking place

about 4 6 billion years ago,

where two Pluto-sized objects
rammed into each other,

and now we're seeing
the aftermath of that

In the end,
Pluto remained intact,

but the other object
broke into pieces,

forming the five moons
that we know of,

some very oddly shaped

All of these small moons
are debris generators,

creating the potential
of millimeter-sized dust

forming a ring around Pluto

The spacecraft is flying so fast
through the Pluto system,

roughly 30,000 miles per hour,

that if it hit even
a millimeter-sized particle,

it could blow a hole
in the spacecraft

and it could destroy the mission

Back in 1967,

this almost happened
to the Mars probe Mariner 4.

It ran into a cloud
of space dust

And over the course
of about 45 minutes,

they were seeing thousands

of impacts on the spacecraft,
completely unexpected

Clearly, there are particles
out there that we can't detect

that could potentially cause
a loss of mission

How much of a beating
can New Horizons take?

We're about to find out

at one of the most powerful
shooting galleries in the world

NASA's hypervelocity gun

can shoot the tiniest of pellets
up to 17,000 miles per hour

The dust particles
New Horizons might run into

range from the size
of the head of a pin

down to the size
of a grain of sand

These little objects
may not look very dangerous,

but imagine a sandstorm
with winds so strong

that just one grain of sand
could kill you

The gun is loaded

The room is cleared

This gun is so powerful,

metal is pulverized
from the impact

A pellet is propelled
down this 120-foot-long barrel

to a target
made of the materials

used in the construction
of the spacecraft

The first layer
is the gold thermal blanket

that covers New Horizons.

The second layer
is the spacecraft's wall

The third layer,
a thin metal plate,

represents the heart
of the spacecraft:

the electronics
and scientific instruments

Test after test is conducted,

tiny pellets slammed
into the target

at lightning speeds

The results are mixed

Most of the pellets penetrate
the gold thermal blanket

but are stopped by the wall
of the spacecraft

But not all

In fact, some, like this one,
punch a hole right through it

A few more holes like this

could put a quick
and violent end to the mission

The potential for a debris
impact that came out

through the detection
of the newer moons

does add another layer
of complexity to the flyby

The New Horizons team
had to come up

with alternate flight plans,
or trajectories,

for the spacecraft to travel

This is the ideal trajectory
they are hoping for

There are actually
four different trajectories

that we could potentially go on,

and we may not know
until a couple of weeks out

which one we're going to be on

The worst possible scenario is
it comes into the system,

it starts taking images,

it gets destroyed
by some impact,

and we'll never see the images,

which is pretty nerve-wracking

I want to see the results

I'm glad I'm not the person
waiting for that data to come

On the approach,
we have planned observations

to look for any other debris,

or we're calling them hazard
now... not moons, hazards

It's funny how things change

There'll always be
a little nagging question,

you know,
"Did we make it through?"

So that first beacon
that says we made it through,

everybody is just going to

They'll breathe a sigh of relief

and then they'll look
at each other and go,

"Oh, I knew it all along"

August 25, 2014

New Horizons reaches
Neptune's orbit

on the 25th anniversary
of Voyager 2's encounter

The original mission
was designed

to study only Jupiter,
Saturn, and their moons,

but Voyager 2 went on
to take stunning images

of Uranus, Neptune,
and its moon Triton

In the '60s and the '70s

and the '80s we were exploring
new planets all the time

First to Mars, first to Venus,
first to Mercury,

first to Jupiter,
first to Saturn

That came to an end in 1989
with Voyager.

It's been 25 years,

and now we're doing
the next first mission

That's epic

December 6, 2014

After years in hibernation,
the spacecraft is waking up

The final leg of its journey
is about to begin

Tonight, we're ending

We have been hibernating
the spacecraft

for most of the
three-billion-mile journey

across the solar system

That's over now

It's really quite a historic day

Once the spacecraft has checked

that all systems are up
and running,

it will send a report
back to MOM

So when we receive

a signal from the spacecraft,

it's data that
the spacecraft sent

four-and-a-half hours earlier

And it requires a special
network of radio antennas

to receive it

Theses enormous antennas
are spaced across the globe

so as the Earth rotates,

the team can stay in touch
with the spacecraft 24/7

The spacecraft has
a ten-watt transmitter

That we can pick that signal up
on Earth is incredible

In comparison,
your average radio station

uses 50,000 watts
to transmit a signal

It is an amazing accomplishment,
and a lot of that's due

to the technology
that's at the stations,

at the Deep Space Network,
these amazing antennas

Getting ready for showtime here

A few members of the team
have gathered

in the room next door,
hoping to celebrate

But that moment will only arrive
when a very tense MOM

gets word from NASA's
Deep Space Network

that they are starting
to receive a signal

from New Horizons.

Data begins to show up
on her screen

Did we get it?

We got it

But before she can breathe easy,

all members
of the Mission Ops team

must verify that all systems
are in working order

RF, MOM on Pluto One

Status Check?

RF is green

Power status?

Power system is green

Propulsion status?

Propulsion is green

Oh, there we go!

We have a nominal wake-up

of the New Horizons spacecraft
on our way to Pluto

The team is ready
for the next leg of our journey

We've got an encounter coming


Yeah, how about that?

Some days,
it just goes like clockwork

Here we go, cheers

We're just gonna all take
a big breath now

To Pluto and beyond!

Hear, hear

To history

This has been a very long road

For the MOM!

Thank you

Well, it's just amazing

We are on the other side
of the solar system,

and where we were meant to be

When we talk
about the spacecraft,

we talk about it as if it's,
you know, our child, our baby

When it does something
that we don't expect,

we relate it perhaps

to "terrible twos"
or something like that,

so it really
it becomes part of us

Over the years,
hundreds of people

have dedicated themselves
to this historic mission

For many team members,
revealing Pluto's secrets

is the challenge of a lifetime

The New Horizons mission

has been a large part
of my life,

and it's been the majority
of my children's lives

I think they can't even imagine
what it'd be like

to have this data from Pluto,

because they've been
looking forward to it

for their whole life

As New Horizons gets closer
and closer to Pluto,

the team determines
there are no more moons

and little risk of the
spacecraft being destroyed

by debris

They looked and they
looked and they looked,

but they couldn't
find any new moons

I think they were kind
of disappointed

from a scientific standpoint,
but from a hazard standpoint

it was really good news

But the good news is short-lived

About 1:55 p m local, we've
lost signal with the spacecraft

You just feel that pit
in the bottom of your stomach

You're thinking, "Oh, my God,

I can't believe
this is happening"

Your pulse goes up a little bit

Could it be these millions of
miles away, we hit something?

Searching for a solution,
mission ops tries to connect

with New Horizon's
backup computer,

which transmits on
a different radio frequency

Right away, Deep Space Network
locked up onto that signal

and it was such a great feeling
because we found our spacecraft

Turned out that the main
processor had reset

and it had switched over
to the backup processor

That's sort of like
your worst nightmare

a week before an encounter

We knew that we could fix it

The question was:

were we going to be able to do
that in enough time?

Alice, I swear,
didn't get any sleep

But she said she slept
on the floor

for a few minutes one night

For a couple nights slept there

You know, just like a child
that's sick,

you want to be there to help it
recover along the way

The team fixes the problem

just seven days before
New Horizons is set

to fly by Pluto

We did it with four hours to
spare, or something like that

Yes, things are definitely
back onto track

And the pictures are flooding in

Every day, it's been getting
better and better

We've been getting beautiful
stuff for the last week

We are drooling
with anticipation

The next picture from LORRI
that we will see

is a full-frame image of Pluto

And it's the one that we think
is really going to tell us

what's happening

I almost can't wait for it
to come down

Taken almost half a million
miles away,

this is New Horizons last
portrait of Pluto

before its closest approach

Scientists speculate
the light areas are ice;

the dark could be a dusting
of organic molecules

that fall from the atmosphere


This is the heart, right?

This is the heart-shaped region,

being traced out here

Clearly there's a lot of craters


It really is breathtaking
and awe-inspiring

I've never seen anything
like this before

But there's one more hurdle,
and it's a big one

The world watches

as the team tensely awaits
a signal from New Horizons

that it has made its closest
approach to Pluto

less than 8,000 miles
above the surface

and survived
with all systems intact

Stand by for telemetry

PI, MOM on Pluto 1

We have a healthy spacecraft

We've recorded data
of the Pluto system,

and we're outbound for Pluto

We did it

Very relieved and happy, yes

No, I mean, every polling
that was done,

every subsystem that reported in
was like music to my ears

It's never sounded that good

The next day,
the tiny spacecraft,

three billion miles from home,
starts beaming back

The first close-up pictures
of Pluto,

with icy mountains
11,000 feet high,

and Pluto's biggest moon,

with hardly any impact craters

It will take about 16 months
for New Horizons to send back

all the photos and data
it has gathered

and years for scientists
to analyze it,

slowly revealing Pluto's secrets
as New Horizons itself

heads out through the icy
Kuiper belt and beyond