Half a day after scientists celebrated the moment when the United States became the first country to visit all nine planets (former and current) in our solar system, the small spacecraft phoned home to say it was still alive. NASA is supposed to release more photos of Pluto today, a closer look at the dwarf planet than we’ve ever seen. It will take New Horizons about 16 months to transmit all the data it collected on Tuesday back to Earth.
All this waiting, however, has been punctuated by highly amusing celebrations, proving that space scientists are a far more rowdy and excitable bunch than dour films like Interstellar and Armageddon have led us to believe.
Before New Horizons reached Pluto at 7:49 a.m., the scientists crowding into a conference room at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory listened to “The Final Countdown,” and prepared their miniature American flags for the moment.
If there were a dress code for Independence Day celebrations, they would be impossible to differentiate from the crowd hollering in the video below.
It was like an Olympics watch party, with Americans learning that they had beat everyone else in the 3-billion-mile dash.
The New Horizons team responded in a similar dramatic fashion, which cannot be properly experienced without proper accompaniment from John Williams.
When NASA finally heard back from New Horizons at 8:52:37 p.m., the scene was even more ebullient, going from reminiscent of Independence Day to resembling what Mardi Gras would look like if it took place at a physics convention.
The quotes from the New Horizons team were even more beautifully ecstatic — although it took them a long time to start talking, because the applause went on forever.
Alice Bowman, mission operations manager, said, “We have a healthy spacecraft. … Just like we practiced, just like we planned it. We did it.” She later said, “I can’t express how I’m feeling to have achieved a childhood dream of space exploration. Please tell your children … do what you’re passionate about. Don’t do something because it’s easy … Give yourself that challenge and you’ll not be sorry for it. So: Here we go. Out to the solar system.”
The New York Times did manage to find perhaps the only depressing way to react to the spacecraft’s successful mission.
NASA released more photos of Pluto on Wednesday. One revealed the dwarf planet’s ice mountains, which could be 11,000 feet tall and "likely formed no more than 100 million years ago," according to NASA’s website, "mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system."
The world had already begun to dissect the images, trying to find familiar sights in the planet’s surface like it’s a cloud formation.
Some saw a giant heart.
Others saw a different kind of Pluto.
And at least one person just saw a really puny — if cool-looking — blob.
This post has been updated throughout.