Hello Pluto! Marking five years since the famous flyby

Hello Pluto! Marking five years since the famous flyby
By Bailey Sullivan 07/24/2020
Five years feels like just yesterday for the Ball Aerospace team that built the Ralph camera for NASA’s New Horizons mission. It was five years ago this month, after completing a journey of more than 3 billion miles, that the spacecraft achieved something more than a decade in the making by successfully flying by Pluto on July 14, 2015. New Horizons is one accomplished spacecraft. At a speed of 14.7 km/sec (31,000 miles per hour), it’s the first and fastest spacecraft to travel such a great distance to study Pluto, a dwarf planet with a complex system of moons never before seen up-close.

Reminscing About Ralph

Ball employees played a major role in the success of the flyby, building the Ralph camera in just 22 months. Many team members, including Carl Weimer, are looking back at its journey from build to launch to discovery. Part of his job as Ralph systems lead for I&T was to verify the performance of the complex hardware and ensure that it would be a success when the flyby eventually took place. Recalling the process and anxiously awaiting word that the spacecraft was successfully collecting data, he’s extremely proud of the Ball team for its work on the mission.

“It was a tough instrument and tough timeframe, but the team came together and beat a lot of problems up until the very end,” says Weimer. “It did blow me away when some of the images started coming back. I wasn’t expecting the complexity of what was found.”
Ralph instrument
Pluto's Heart

Stunning Scenes

Just one day after the flyby, NASA’s New Horizons team announced several discoveries, including icy mountains on Pluto and a crisp view of its largest moon, Charon. The Ralph camera generated visible and near infrared multi-spectral images of Pluto to help scientists study the surface geology and create maps of the surface features and temperature of the planet. Data from Ralph revealed an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto.

“Part of the excitement is enabling new science that's mind-bending. You never anticipate it until you do it. That's what we do at Ball is enable science and exploration,” says Weimer.

As the data onboard New Horizons completed download, the images from the spacecraft of Pluto continued to wow the world. Combining Ralph’s data with the LORRI instrument's long-range data has given us this enhanced color global view. Pluto’s “heart” is a definite favorite!
“They did the flyby and data kept coming out and coming out. There's always new science going on. Then came the flyby of the Kuiper Belt object, now named Arrokoth, which was equally as exciting,” says Weimer.

Since the mission's historic flyby of the dwarf planet, the New Horizons team has been recognized with several industry awards, including Aviation Week's Laureate Award, the National Space Foundation's Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy, National Air and Space Museum's Current Achievement Trophy and SPIE's George W. Goddard Award, among others. NASA’s New Horizons mission team also honored the life and contributions of Ball engineer Lisa Hardaway by dedicating the spectrometer she helped develop in her memory.

The discoveries from New Horizons and Ralph have transformed what we know about the formation of our solar system and the structure of planets. Members of NASA’s New Horizons team are reminiscing about the historic achievement and you can read their stories here.
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