I started tracking around the Sputnik Planum on the left chamber of Pluto’s icy heart. I picked up a rock bigger than myself and threw it to watch it float away in the slow motion that comes with low gravity. I went up icy mountains, and looked around — there were miles of rugged cratered terrain, bearing witness to the dwarf planet’s old history of meteor showers. Then I went back to my virtual spaceship, hovering under a starry sky and a dim blob of a sun, to transport myself to Krun Macula, the dark regions named after a mythical lord of the underworld.
It can be both exhilarating and dizzying to walk up and down Pluto’s cliffs in the immersive world of virtual reality, especially for the uninitiated like me. But I was mostly amazed to find myself in a virtual world composed entirely of images and data acquired and sent to Earth by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft only a year ago.
My virtual visit to Pluto took place at an event held by CuriosityStream, a young company that provides subscription-based streaming of documentary film. The VR experience is an appendix to an 11-episode series called “Destination: Pluto,” said Jorge Franzini, a producer of the series.
Planetary scientist Alan Stern, the principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, also got a chance to put on goggles and walk around.
“I was very impressed. I want them to VR the rest of the planet. The samples they did were fabulous,” he said.
It all started with a postal stamp in 1991, which read “Pluto Not Yet Explored.” That’s how Stern likes to begin telling the story of the Pluto mission and how scientists were motivated to better understand the dwarf planet’s unique status in our solar system.
Pluto, first discovered in 1930, is so far away that hardly any reliable data about it could make it to Earth. But in July 2015, on its 9-year, 3-billion-mile journey, New Horizons flew past Pluto. The spacecraft’s high-resolution photos revealed its surprisingly complex geology: glaciers of nitrogen ice, avalanches, old traces of once-flowing rivers, volcanoes and mountain peaks some 11,000 feet tall. (The “Pluto Not Yet Explored” stamp also traveled with the spacecraft as an onboard memento, setting a Guinness World Record for the farthest distance traveled by a stamp.)
New Horizons has continued phoning home data from the flyby, which ends this month. It will then continue its journey in the Kuiper Belt ― the part of the solar system beyond Neptune’s orbit ― to reach another object some 1 billion miles beyond Pluto by 2019.
About 95 percent of New Horizons data is already home, and scientists have learned about some major features in the icy world. “We were very surprised to find out that Pluto is still geologically alive,” Stern said. “It has upended our ideas of how planetary geophysics works.”
Pluto is so small and so far from the sun that most scientists expected it to freeze beyond any chance of creating new geology today.
“Obviously that naive idea is incorrect. And Pluto proved that once and for all,” Stern said. “Now we’re back at the drawing board, trying to figure out how small planets work.”
We were very surprised to find out that Pluto is still geologically alive. It has upended our ideas of how planetary geophysics works. Planetary scientist Alan Stern
Pluto’s complexity was another surprise. Most planetary bodies in the solar system have a few major feature types. Take the moon or Mercury. They’re virtually all craters, with some mountain ranges created by cratering. Some less-typical planetary objects have five or six features. Pluto has a dozen more.
“It’s just the whole package. For being so small, it’s the most complex small planet that we’ve ever seen. It’s as complex as larger planets like Mars or the Earth,” Stern said.
Pluto has also uniquely engaged people. The mission’s webpage received over 2 billion views in one day. The news of the flyby was on the front page of hundreds of newspapers. Space people or scientists weren’t the only ones interested in the Pluto mission, Stern says. It became part of the social fabric and, of course, an internet phenomenon.
That massive social engagement, Stern says, illustrates the mission’s inspirational power. He’s received letters and has had conversations with people after his talks and in the airport who share their fascination or tell him their kids now want to go into science and engineering.
“Hopefully, this will inspire people to do even bigger things. Because there are so many big challenges to rid the world of poverty and pollution, and to do that, it’s going to happen through technology. We need to inspire more people to go into tech careers to solve problems like these, and space exploration is one way to do that.”
Now that New Horizons is off to exploring other Kuiper Belt objects, Stern is expecting many more surprises.
“You could not have predicted the amazing discoveries at Pluto, even though we have been to a couple of objects in the solar system that were at least a little analogous to Pluto,” Stern said. “We’ve never been to anything like where we are going next, either. I don’t make predictions, except to say to expect to see something wonderful.”
I asked Stern what really went through his mind when he first saw there was a heart shape on Pluto. “I was in a room where the data was being displayed, hot off the press, and one of our media people said it’s heart-shaped. And I thought, ‘Oh that’s silly,’” he recalled.
“But then I looked up and saw that it really did look like a heart. We knew that would make Pluto a lot more approachable to the public. I mean, who can’t like a heart?” Stern continued. “Like many aspects of this mission, the public participation was phenomenal ― and I always say, ‘Pluto did its part.’”