The Pluto Flyby that almost did(n’t) happen

In Environment, Technology by James Wanliss2 Comments

“Hello, Pluto, we’ve made it here.” It’s taken a while, but finally we have a real Pluto flyby. NASA’s New Horizons probe flew by Pluto this morning (July 14), capturing history’s first up-close looks at the little rock that couldn’t (Pluto was declared no planet a short while ago, but might make a comeback after today).

Later tonight we’ll know definitively if the mission was a success.

The closest approach came at 7:49 a.m. EDT (1149 GMT), when the spacecraft zoomed within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto’s frozen surface. Will New Horizons survive the flyby? We’ll know tonight if it managed safely to pass through Pluto’s debris field without sustaining a hit.

The Mission that Almost Couldn’t

The $723 million New Horizons mission launched in January 2006 but the mission was proposed in 1989, the same year NASA’s Voyager 2 probe zoomed past Neptune, getting the first up-close looks at that stunning, blue “ice giant.”

It is questionable whether the mission could fly today because of the political clout of the out of control environmental movement, represented first of all by Barack Obama, arguably America’s first truly green president.

It took more than a decade of hard work and wrangling before New Horizons graduated from concept to full-fledged NASA mission. Forgotten in all the excitement of the flyby is the tortured history of New Horizons as environmentalists, rapidly gaining political clout, sought to block the mission at every turn.

Environmentalist knee-jerk opposition to nuclear power was the central complaint. Thanks to its nuclear powered engines the robot ship sped away from earth at speeds approaching 36,000 miles per hour. This is the fastest flight of any spacecraft sent from our planet and allowed New Horizons to speed pass the Moon about nine hours from launch and now, less than a decade later, it is threading the needle of Pluto’s orbit.

The powerful advocacy groups Greenpeace and ‘Friends of the Earth’ were at the forefront of opposition and many environmentalists picketed the launch site. Nonetheless, with an administration friendly to nuclear power and open to scientific innovation, just less than a decade ago New Horizons defied the greens and blasted off to Pluto.

Payoff began this morning, when New Horizons hit its target nearly 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km) from our planet. This is equivalent to shooting a thread through the eye of a needle located 300 m (1000 ft) away, or sinking a hole in one between Jerusalem and Kathmandu. Not too shabby.

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James Wanliss, Ph.D., is Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC. He is a Senior Fellow and Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death. He has published over 50 peer-reviewed physics articles, has held the NSF CAREER award, and does research in space science and nonlinear dynamical systems under grants from NASA and NSF. He regularly blogs at


  1. We’ve already in the past few days learned that we’ve misestimated Pluto’s size. It is slightly bigger (tens of km in radius) bigger than expected. If we find strong evidence of active volcanoes on Pluto (or its moons) then this is a huge problem for the nebular hypothesis which holds Pluto is billions of years old. The reason is that there is no known mechanism to have this kind of hot activity continue for so long.

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