What did NASA’s New Horizons discover around Pluto?

New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers mission category, larger and more expensive than the Discovery missions but smaller than the Flagship Program. The cost of the mission (including spacecraft and instrument development, launch vehicle, mission operations, data analysis, and education/public outreach) is approximately $700 million over 15 years (2001–2016).[37] The spacecraft was built primarily by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The mission’s principal investigator is Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (formerly NASA Associate Administrator).

After separation from the launch vehicle, overall control was taken by Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County, Maryland. The science instruments are operated at Clyde Tombaugh Science Operations Center (T-SOC) in Boulder, Colorado.[38] Navigation is performed at various contractor facilities, whereas the navigational positional data and related celestial reference frames are provided by the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station through Headquarters NASA and JPLKinetX is the lead on the New Horizons navigation team and is responsible for planning trajectory adjustments as the spacecraft speeds toward the outer Solar System. Coincidentally the Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station was where the photographic plates were taken for the discovery of Pluto’s moon Charon; and the Naval Observatory is itself not far from the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered.

New Horizons was originally planned as a voyage to the only unexplored planet in the Solar System. When the spacecraft was launched, Pluto was still classified as a planet, later to be reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Some members of the New Horizons team, including Alan Stern, disagree with the IAU definition and still describe Pluto as the ninth planet.[39] Pluto’s satellites Nix and Hydra also have a connection with the spacecraft: the first letters of their names (N and H) are the initials of New Horizons. The moons’ discoverers chose these names for this reason, plus Nix and Hydra’s relationship to the mythological Pluto.[40]

In addition to the science equipment, there are several cultural artifacts traveling with the spacecraft. These include a collection of 434,738 names stored on a compact disc,[41] a piece of Scaled Composites‘s SpaceShipOne,[42] a “Not Yet Explored” USPS stamp,[43][44] and a Flag of the United States, along with other mementos.[45]

About 30 grams (1 oz) of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes are aboard the spacecraft, to commemorate his discovery of Pluto in 1930.[46][47] A Florida-state quarter coin, whose design commemorates human exploration, is included, officially as a trim weight.[48] One of the science packages (a dust counter) is named after Venetia Burney, who, as a child, suggested the name “Pluto” after its discovery.