You could say I'm like a child in the proverbial candy store after everything that happened on Tuesday. No, it's much better than that. I feel like a child on Christmas morning waiting to unwrap my presents.
While most of us were still sleeping in the early morning hours, mankind's understanding of the universe suddenly became a whole lot more interesting. At 5:49:57 a.m., a spacecraft roughly the size of a grand piano zoomed past one of the solar system's farthest and, as some would argue, one of the most mysterious worlds out there.
The New Horizons mission marked a milestone in a flight that will continue for years to come. As it approached Pluto, NASA engineers took the meaning of "up close" to a whole new level. After traveling 3 billion miles over the course of 9 1/2 years, engineers were able to adjust the spacecraft's trajectory to have it pass just 7,800 miles away from the planet and 17,900 miles from its largest moon, Charon.
Let me try to put that into perspective. The navigation satellites that provide information to the GPS receiver in your car fly 10,500 feet above the Earth.
Ever since I was a child, the mysteries of the planets and heavens above captivated my interest. By the time I was eight years old, I had not only memorized all of the planets in order from the Sun, but I also knew how many moons orbited each of them.
That's one reason why this particular mission had piqued my interest. Lonely Pluto was the only world we had yet to explore up close.
The only photos we had of the planet were shot by the Hubble Space Telescope, and it took 20 computers running around the clock over a four-year period to generate those grainy, featureless pictures.
I began to track New Horizons right after it launched in January 2006. At the time, I was still serving in the Air Force, and Pluto was still considered an official planet in what was known then as the classical solar system. The reason behind its "demotion" to a dwarf planet is a discussion for perhaps another day.
Over the years, I would regularly check NASA's web site for the latest information on the mission. The site included a graphic that showed the space probe's current position and how much longer it would take to reach the ninth planet.
I suppose one of the questions on people's minds is why we bothered going to Pluto in the first place. After all, a lot of people felt there wasn't much to be gained by getting photos of a lifeless rock.
However, the photos taken in recent weeks show that the planet has a very dynamic surface filled with different features that will take researchers years to investigate. One of the features on the faded brown surface is a white field that, if you let your imagination go free for a moment, looks a lot like a giant heart spanning hundreds of miles.
The images even have my youngest daughter looking over my shoulder from time to time. Pointing to photos relayed by New Horizons over the weekend, she's convinced that the system of craters, cliffs and ravines on one side of Pluto looks a lot like a goldfish. Oddly enough, I can see it, too.
I think the last time I got so excited about the solar system was Aug. 25, 1989, when Voyager 2 visited Neptune. But since then, humanity has focused a lot more attention on the inner planets as well as the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Several months ago, a mission not only reached a comet racing toward the Sun, but it also landed a probe on its surface.
So why did we go to Pluto? Most scientists emphasize that we went there hoping to unlock the secrets that led to the creation of the Earth and the other planets that surround our Sun. It could confirm a lot of theories on why some planets have solid surfaces like Earth while others like Jupiter and Saturn are massive balls of hydrogen and helium gas with either extremely small or non-existent solid cores.
For people like me, the answer on why we went is simple: Because we are simply curious.
The flyby of Pluto, which took just seven hours to complete, didn't focus solely on that world. We also received come up-close photos of Charon as well, which from my limited vantage point looks eerily like our own moon. I hope that we can also sneak in a few snapshots of Pluto's inner moons -- Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.
Tuesday was just a milestone for New Horizons. From here, the probe is heading into the Kuiper Belt -- an asteroid belt located past Neptune. It's here that we've discovered a number of dwarf planets similar to Pluto that could shed even more light on the "building blocks" used to build the world we call home.
Our understanding of the solar system will never be the same, and for that, I'm truly grateful.
-- Brian S. Orban