January 2016, NASA releases a new image of
a strange structure on the surface of Pluto.
It appears to be an enormous ice volcano on
what should be a geologically dead planet.
On the flanks of this big summit depression
is the caldera of the volcano.
Nothing like this has been seen anywhere in
the solar system.
It’s got us baffled.
Now, scientists believe that just beneath
this volcano is an entire ocean of water.
The mysterious image that triggered this discovery
is one of thousands that scientists are still
downloading from a historic fly-by of Pluto
in July 2015.
Stand by for telemetry.
Three, two, one.
There it is.
Even today, much of the data from the fly
by between 35 and 40 percent, is still up
on the spacecraft and no human being has seen
We don’t know what discoveries will be in
How did a team of explorers become the first
people in history to capture images of Pluto’s
And what can explain mysterious new photographs
like Pluto’s volcano?
A team of young university students and scientists
set its sights on the last unexplored planet
in the solar system.
You know if somebody said, “Well were you
all obsessed with Pluto?”
I think we would all have to plead guilty.
At the time, Ralph McNutt is a physics professor
I think I did always dream of being an explorer.
I’ve been a space cadet since I was a kid,
and at that time, Pluto was just this incredible
big question mark.
All we knew was it, it was a spot of light
in the sky.
But with the dwarf planet three billion miles
away, and smaller than our own moon, even
the best telescope images are too small to
reveal any detail.
The best image from the Hubble space telescope
of Pluto is this fuzzy ball that’s about six
square pixels by six square pixels.
So here are these upstart kids, that were
saying, “We ought to go to Pluto.
We ought to finish out the exploration of
the solar system.”
So, at some point, the moniker Pluto Underground
And the Pluto Underground…
I like to call ’em the Pluto Mafia, these
are the folks who’ve, you know, spent almost
their entire careers studying Pluto.
You know, Pluto was the end game.
This was our opportunity to finish the task
of the exploration of the solar system.
Young graduate students united by their fascination
with the outer solar system, the Pluto Underground
want NASA to make their dream a reality and
one man would lead them there.
Dr. Alan Stern.
We weren’t going to answer specific questions.
We were going to collect data sets with our
eyes wide open to see what was there.
Literally exploring, literally flying into
The Pluto Underground form a plan to fly a
spacecraft within 8,000 miles of Pluto’s surface,
almost 30 times closer than the moon is to
As it flies overhead, the probe will turn
and snap the first photographs of the planet’s
But the plan faces an uphill battle.
NASA could be doing quicker missions closer
And trying to mount an inexpensive mission
all the way to the edge of the solar system,
is a fool’s folly.
Alan, Alan’s a very unique person, and you
know, I think this was almost super human
act of absolutely dogged determination over
the years, that made this happen.
Dr. Stern is hopeful that the images will
solve an ancient mystery.
Pluto orbits in a mysterious region of space,
densely packed with unusual moons, dwarf planets,
and other misfit objects.
The final frontier in the solar system is
the Kuiper Belt, this region of leftover objects
from the formation of the solar system.
And Pluto is the largest of those objects.
It’s a very important region for understanding
the birth of the solar system.
This means that Pluto is a four and a half
billion-year-old fossil, holding clues about
how our own planet was formed.
The Kuiper Belt was discovered and Pluto went
from being this loan misfit in the outer solar
system, to the biggest, the baddest and the
brightest member of that entire population.
This was a very rich scientific target.
After all, it’s a long way away, so you better
have an awful good reason.
In 2003, the Pluto Underground convinces NASA
and the New Horizons mission is born.
We had a lot of difficulties associated with
getting to Pluto, one of which is it’s three
billion miles away.
We’re driving to you know, 33 times as far
from the Sun as the Earth is.
The longer a spacecraft travels, the greater
chance something could go wrong.
So, the team wants to reach Pluto within ten
years of launch.
The New Horizons spacecraft was gonna be the
fastest ever to leave the earth, more than
30,000 miles per hour taking off.
That’s more than 50 times faster than a jet
To cross a three-billion-mile ocean of space
required us to travel at this crazy speed.
When I was a boy, Apollo missions took three
days to reach the moon.
New Horizons is going to reach the moon in
How’s that for speed?
To achieve that record-breaking speed, New
Horizons must be light.
The less weight a launch vehicle has to push
against earth’s gravity, the faster it can
The size of a small piano, New Horizons will
weigh just 1,000 pounds, and it can carry
only enough fuel for minor course corrections.
Once it reaches Pluto, it cannot slow down
and enter orbit.
There is no second chance.
You’re flying by, there’s no stopping it.
The spacecraft is on a path, a beeline past
Either you were gonna get it, or you weren’t.
And it was terrifying, to tell you the truth.
But if it works, New Horizons will capture
thousands of images in incredible close up
Three, two, one.
We have ignition and lift off of NASA’s New
It was a picture-perfect launch.
It couldn’t have been any better.
But still, it was yet another nine and a half
years before we finally get to, to Pluto.
But there’s plenty to do while the team waits,
including a close pass of another planet.
We needed to pick up some extra energy in
order to be able to actually get to Pluto
We had this opportunity to fly near Jupiter,
steal a little, you know, gravity assist from
Jupiter, and increase our speed by 20 percent
and cut three years off the travel time to,
In February 2007, Jupiter’s gravity propels
New Horizons like a slingshot toward its destination.
After nearly nine and a half years of traveling
through space, New Horizons is a mere ten
days away from its historic fly by.
I get a frantic call from Alan Stern, the
principal investigator, and I could tell that
he was breathing hard.
He was running down the hallway, and he said,
“We’ve lost communication with the spacecraft.”
This had never happened in nine and a half
years of flight.
How could it be happening today, at the last
Just on the verge of, of summiting Mount Everest.
What have we done?
We have no spacecraft, no signal, no knowledge
of what’s going on.
It started to sink in that we may be experiencing
something that’s abnormal on the spacecraft.
And, I can’t tell you how that feels.
Alice Bowman is the mom, or mission operations
manager for New Horizons.
You allow yourself those ten seconds of feeling
you know, “Oh my god, what’s going on?” and
then you know, your training kicks in.
Alice was in charge of the recovery effort,
and there was no way she was gonna let this
fail after nine and a half years.
Alice scrambles the team to assess the damage.
And they make a heart stopping discovery.
It turns out that we had overworked the main
computer on the spacecraft and caused it to
Six months of programming are lost.
Now, the engineering team has only a few days
to redo everything.
We knew we could fix it.
The question was, could we fix it in time
for the fly by sequence that was supposed
to start on July 7th?
Over the course of three sleepless days, the
team uploads command codes to New Horizons,
nearly three billion miles across the solar
We were able to get that sequence, or set
of instructions, loaded to the main computer,
and we had four hours to spare.
If you’ve got high blood pressure to begin
with, this is probably a business you ought
to stay out of.
Seven days later, the morning of the Pluto
flyby has come.
Hang onto your seats, because the roller coaster
ride is on.
As media from across the world gathers at
Johns Hopkins University outside Baltimore,
Maryland, all eyes are on Dr. Alan Stern.
We passed inside the orbit of Hydra, the outermost
moon of Pluto…
And, he’s brought an early surprise for the
New Horizons team.
The night before closest approach, we made
a point of sending home a handful of images
They were the highest resolution images that
had ever been obtained.
Pluto went from being just a small image in
the distance, sort of like a jeweled Christmas
ornament, to all of a sudden, this massive
world with unparalleled complexity.
But this is not the image of Pluto the team
came to see.
It’s New Horizons’ closest approach that will
truly reveal Pluto’s secrets.
In less than an hour, New Horizons will come
within 8,000 miles of Pluto.
But the timing had been off.
That we had somehow just messed up, and instead
of flying by Pluto at the prescribed time
it was, you know, 1,000 seconds earlier or
We’ve had everything pointed in the wrong
You don’t wanna wait two decades and see a
bunch of stars.
OK, we have 25 seconds folks.
T minus 25 seconds.
At 7.49 am, the team counts down to the actual
second New Horizons makes its closest approach
…eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two,
Decades of work, they don’t come down to one
They come down to one minute.
To one second.
But no-one really knows if the probe survived
the flyby until it sends a confirmation signal
back to Mission Control.
Radio signals traveling at light speed are
expected to arrive at the APL Mission Operation
Center and we’ll go live in the Mission Operation
Center so you can watch some of that activity.
At 9pm, the team gathers to learn New Horizons’
We are searching for a frequency.
Waiting for the spacecraft to report back,
you could probably have cut the tension with
Everything’s riding on this, and it’s, it’s
an incredibly high stakes poker game.
OK, we’re in luck with carrier?
Stand by for telemetry.
You really don’t know if your spacecraft survived,
despite all the work that you’ve done.
OK, copy that, we’re in lock with telemetry
with the spacecraft.
MOM I clear to one?
We have a healthy spacecraft.
We’ve recorded data for Pluto system, and
we’re outbound for Pluto.
When we got that signal, it was like a celebration
for the 10, 15 years of work that we’d put
into that mission.
We did it.
This has been beyond my wildest expectations
in every regard.
It’s returning beautiful data, and the Pluto
system is just mind blowing.
Within hours, New Horizons begins to deliver
its first images.
Our jaws were just dropping.
It was incredible.
We had transformed this little pixelated blob
into this real world.
What the team sees in the images…
…is completely unexpected.
Even though logically, I knew that it was
a rocky icy planet, I didn’t expect it to
look so similar to features that we have on
I love this picture.
It’s one that was made about 15 minutes after
The very rugged terrains, many of these mountains
are 10,000 feet tall.
The team has discovered mountains of water
ice the size of the Rockies on a planet smaller
than our own moon.
You felt like you were there.
Seeing the giant ice mountains, and giant
chasms, you know, much bigger than the Grand
Canyon in the United States.
We could actually see glacier flows.
It’s molecular nitrogen ice, it’s almost like
water ice is on the Earth, and so it can flow.
The discovery of water ice mountains and nitrogen
glaciers leads Alan to one shocking conclusion.
Pluto is geologically alive after four and
a half billion years.
Which upended many geophysical theories that
did predict that small planets would cool
off and die early in their history and just
be a frozen relic of that time.
That tells us that our ideas of how planetary
engines work were wrong.
And that we had to rethink them.
But one recently downloaded image further
fuels Pluto’s mystery.
This is one of the most amazing finds we made
It’s a giant ice volcano that was apparently
active late in the history of the solar system.
There are almost no craters in the flanks
of this structure, the big summit depression
is the caldera of the volcano.
Nothing like this has been seen anywhere in
the solar system from Mars all the way to
Sometimes I pinch myself that this is a real
place that we actually went and visited.
It looks like something out of science fiction.
And why Pluto should have these features has
got us baffled.
An active volcano would mean a source of heat
somewhere on the planet.
And now, the New Horizons team believes that
heat could be warming an ocean of water beneath
the surface of Pluto.
It is a stunning discovery.
You have, you know, all of these other exotic
things going on, but it looks almost like
tectonic activity, and you know, where is
that coming from?
Why is Pluto still alive?
New images might solve the mystery.
The blue-sky image, this is something that
was absolutely totally unexpected.
The discovery of active geology on Pluto has
defied expectations of a frozen dead world.
There were mountains of pure ice that were
10,000 feet high.
There were active glaciers of nitrogen and
Nobody was expecting the drama and the beauty
that we found.
But Pluto’s biggest mystery may lie above
After we fly by Pluto, and look back towards
the sun, and we can actually see the atmosphere.
And see this blue.
Pluto has blue skies, who would have thought?
It’s just amazing.
This blue atmosphere of nitrogen should have
dissipated into space billions of years ago.
Something is replenishing it.
Could volcanic activity spew fresh nitrogen
from deep beneath the surface?
New images might soon solve the mystery.
We’ve got over a year’s worth of data to still
There’s a lot of people that are losing a
lot of sleep these days trying to do this
as fast as possible.
But by far the best images are still to come.