The United States has a long history of innovation in space and pushing the boundaries, from putting the first people on the moon in 1969 to landing the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012. At 7:49:58 Tuesday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continued that tradition as the spacecraft New Horizons passed by Pluto, making the United States the first nation to send a spacecraft to the dwarf planet.
While many are first hearing about New Horizons this week, its journey began long ago. Launched in January of 2006, the spacecraft has been on its way to Pluto for nine years. The payoff now comes with close-up images of Pluto and its five moons.
Discovered in 1930 by Clyde W. Tombaugh, Pluto quickly captured the public’s imagination. Pluto made news in 2006 as astronomers reclassified it as a dwarf planet, officially lowering the number of planets in our solar system to eight. The demotion came shortly after the discovery of a large number of icy bodies at the edge of our solar system known now as the Kuiper belt, of which Pluto is thought to be the largest object. With New Horizons’ arrival, we are poised to gain groundbreaking information on the dwarf planet and Kuiper belt.
NASA keeps looking forward, aiming to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to Hubble, in 2018 and then planning a mission to Mars.
The space agency has embraced space entrepreneurship and is a great example of the power of public-private partnerships. In 2014, NASA officially awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing for the development of spacecraft aimed at bringing astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017—something the U.S. has relied on other countries, specifically Russia, to do since retiring the space shuttle in 2011. Additionally, NASA has been working with Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, United Launch Alliance and others on a variety of projects.
Not only do these partnerships promise to return jobs to the United States and help us maintain control over our space program, they also have the potential to drastically reduce the cost of launching satellites, supplies and astronauts. That would allow NASA to reallocate funds to more ambitious long-term projects.
NASA’s partnerships with the private sector have not been without incident. In the past eight months, three resupply missions have ended in failure and a loss of cargo. These recent failures have caused some to doubt the feasibility of the commercial space efforts; however, NASA remains hopeful and plans to press ahead with private partnerships.
No matter how you look at it, NASA has been extremely successful and New Horizons’ arrival at Pluto is an example of things to come. NASA has garnered increasing public support for continued space exploration, and through partnerships with private companies the space agency is working to more effectively pursue its mission to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown.