Tonight I hung my biggest, most wonderful piece of art. And it’s got a story. The photo is of the back side of Pluto, which had never been seen by humans until the New Horizons spacecraft passed by on its way out of the solar system in 2015. Here’s the story behind the image.
In 2006, an Atlas rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying a small spacecraft called New Horizons. It was the fastest object ever launched from earth. New Horizons‘ mission was to fly to Pluto, gather photos, and then fly onward to the Kuiper Belt and hopefully get photos of one or more objects there, before leaving the solar system forever.
New Horizons quietly traveled through space for most of the next 8 years, being awakened for an annual checkup before going back to sleep to conserve power. On December 6, 2014, New Horizons was brought back online to start getting ready to visit Pluto.
In 2015, it passed close to Pluto, getting incredibly detailed photos of the surface of the dwarf planet that nobody had ever seen before. After it was done with Pluto, it went on to get close up photos of Ultima Thule in early January 2019. That got a lot of press, and was the main focus of an episode of my favorite TV show NOVA, called “Pluto and Beyond“. The episode was broadcast live on January 2, 2019, to coincide with the flyby of Ultima Thule.
A couple weeks later, I saw that NOVA episode. And though the Ultima Thule stuff was cool, it didn’t strike me like the closeup photos of Pluto itself did. The part of the show that left the most impact on me was three scientists talking about their final and favorite image of Pluto from the New Horizons mission.
Here’s the segment of the video I’m talking about:
As its historic flyby comes to an end, and the tiny spacecraft leaves Pluto, New Horizons looks back to take one last breathtaking image.
Joel Parker, Planetary Scientist, New Horizons Mission:
My real favorite, favorite picture is one after we flew by Pluto, and we’re looking back, and we see the horizon of Pluto with the Sun lighting the atmosphere from behind. You can see layers of haze and shadows of mountains streaming across the surface, and that is where you really understand that Pluto is a world.
Marc Buie, Planetary Scientist, New Horizons Mission:
Whenever I see that picture, it’s as if I’m sitting on the spacecraft looking out the window, as Pluto goes whizzing by. And it more than any other picture that we took puts me there.
Alan Stern, Principal Investigator, New Horizons Mission:
That photograph for me is the crowning achievement. We were really there, and we really did it. And we made our own little contribution not just to science, but actually to history.
So of course I searched for that actual image, and soon found it. And I decided I must have a print of it.
For me, like the scientists, it’s something special. This was almost certainly the only time in my lifetime that humanity will visit Pluto. When I was young, I was inspired by science fiction and wanted to be an astronaut. Then, when I realized that’s not likely, I switched directions to being an aerospace engineer. And that never really happened, either. But I still love the idea of space exploration. Having a faraway planet in my home makes me happy.
I got a high resolution version of the photo from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and had a local Denver print shop called Infinite Editions make a print for me. It’s 36″ by 52″ and it’s gorgeous.
There’s only one place in my small condo for a piece this big. I had to rent a van to get it home, since it’s too big to fit in my car. Also, it’s my first piece of art that requires a French cleat to hang. So I don’t have to worry about it getting crooked or anyone bumping it off its hanger.
So that is what I spent my tax refund on this year.