America is poised to reach a new milestone Tuesday in exploration and discovery. Fifty years after Mariner-4's historic flyby of Mars, 20 years after the Galileo spacecraft arrived at Jupiter and five years after President Barack Obama challenged America's space program to extend humanity's reach in space while strengthening America's leadership here on Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft will reach Pluto, providing the closest view humanity has ever seen of the dwarf planet.
Since its launch in 2006, New Horizons has traveled to the far reaches of the solar system. When New Horizons passes by Pluto — at a distance of only 8,000 miles above the icy surface — it will be nearly 3.6 billion miles from home.
In advance of tomorrow's rendezvous, New Horizons has sent back the most detailed images and measurements ever taken of Pluto and its moons, revealing significant new insights about the dwarf planet. Recent color images from New Horizons confirmed the hypothesis that, like Mars, Pluto has a reddish color. Scientists also have tantalizing new evidence of surface features on Pluto that they hope to see even more clearly as the spacecraft draws nearer to its destination.
In the days, weeks, and months to come, as New Horizons transmits volumes of data back to Earth about its encounter, there is so much more that scientists hope to learn: What do the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, look like? What are the surfaces made of? What is Pluto's atmosphere like, and does Charon have an atmosphere of its own?
Credit for this scientific and technological feat is due to the women and men of NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Southwest Research Institute and other partners in the public, private and academic sectors. Space travel is challenging and risky, and the team of scientists and engineers who designed, built and supported New Horizons over the years should be commended for this extraordinary achievement.
New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple rovers exploring the surface of Mars, the Cassini spacecraft that has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn and the Hubble Space Telescope, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. New Horizons may have reached its destination in the outer reaches of the solar system, but the journey of discovery continues at NASA.
NASA's portfolio of scientific exploration includes a broad and robust array of missions and destinations. The James Webb Space Telescope — scheduled to launch in October 2018 — will orbit the Sun a million miles from Earth and will reveal new worlds, galaxies and solar systems, enabling a better understanding of our own place in the universe. The 2020s will bring a new rover to the surface of Mars, and a mission to explore Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, is in development. NASA-led studies of Earth continue to shed new light on the dynamic and complex interactions that influence the climate, weather and natural hazards people encounter around the world. Ultimately, this journey of discovery will bring American astronauts to a place that has sparked imaginations for generations: Mars.
Successful completion of this mission to Pluto marks a scientific achievement that only a generation ago would have seemed little more than fantasy. With tomorrow's Pluto flyby, the United States will have visited every planet and dwarf planet in our solar system, a remarkable accomplishment that no other nation can match. Thanks to American ingenuity and leadership, people around the world have a better understanding of planet Earth, the solar system and the universe. With that knowledge in hand, the next generation of scientists and engineers can look ahead to new horizons of discovery in the decades to come.
Charles Bolden is NASA administrator; Twitter: @NASA. John Holdren is assistant to the president for science and technology; Twitter: @whitehouseostp.