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Science & Technology

NASA Spacecraft Flies Past Pluto After 10-Year Journey

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today, a spacecraft sailed past the dwarf planet Pluto for the very first time, snapping pictures and taking measurements. How those images look, what those measurements are - well, researchers are now in a state of wait and see, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: So how do you celebrate first contact with a new world 3 billion miles away?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Nine, eight, seven, six...

BRUMFIEL: With a party of course. At the precise moment the probe sailed past Pluto, researchers, family and friends cheered in an auditorium at the Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md. Everyone was there, even the people who would normally be talking to the probe.

GLENN FOUNTAIN: There is no one in mission control right now.

BRUMFIEL: Glenn Fountain is the project manager for the spacecraft, which is named New Horizons. If it sounds like negligence, well, it's not. New Horizons is so far from Earth it would take four-and-a-half hours for a signal from here to reach it. The plucky little probe is doing all its scientific measurements by itself.

FOUNTAIN: It's all on automatic pilot, if you will. It's all preprogrammed.

BRUMFIEL: And it won't send its next message home until its work is nearly done. So even after the cheering ended, researcher Carly Howett and her colleagues had nothing to do but wait. And although they were all exhausted, nobody was going home.

CARLY HOWETT: I mean, it's thoroughly exciting. I've had one hour's sleep and I'm buzzing - and not due to, you know, sort of caffeine or anything like that. Just - it's so exciting.

BRUMFIEL: Fellow scientist Carey Lisse adds they can't really rest until New Horizons finally gets in touch.

CAREY LISSE: We really won't relax and celebrate until the phone home, that we know that everything's fine with the spacecraft and that we'll be getting our data down from all of its hard work.

HOWETT: That's exactly it. I mean, New Horizons is working hard right now, but if it doesn't phone home, that will be futile.

BRUMFIEL: Researchers expect to hear from the spacecraft later tonight, and that's only the beginning. It will be months before all the data and pictures reach Earth. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.