Story: Although Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet after its launch, the New Horizons mission was tasked to visit and explore this distant, ice covered world. New Horizons would travel over three billion miles over nine years to reach Pluto, assuming a bold flyby of Jupiter yielded a much needed slingshot of a speed boost. Once it arrived, New Horizons would take unprecedented photos of Pluto and return all kinds of useful data back to the scientists, before doing its final flyby on the edge of the solar system. But once New Horizons headed out beyond Pluto, it would continue to provide data, including a gorgeous image of Pluto with a glowing blue atmosphere, as well as documenting some of the Kuiper Belt objects that had intrigued scientists for decades.
Entertainment Value: When it comes to science documentaries, NOVA offers a deep collection of superbly crafted episodes on topics of all kinds. I gravitate toward the space related episodes and Chasing Pluto was one I had to see, having just finished learning more about the Voyager mission and wanting to know more about the edge of the solar system. I was hooked from the start here and while this only runs just under an hour in length, this episode gives us a deep look at New Horizons, which would explore the icy world of Pluto and more. The piece takes us back to how the mission came to be and the process of building a historic spacecraft like New Horizons, directly from some of the folks who made the mission happen. I love hearing these first hand memories and the passion for science shown was remarkable, listening to the New Horizons team was a true pleasure and seeing the fruition of their work was also a rich experience.
We also learn about the controversial decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet, one which happened after the launch and wasn’t popular with the New Horizons team. I think it is sad that Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh did not survive to see the historic images and data of his discovery, but some of his ashes were on board the craft. So Tombaugh did indeed get to visit Pluto and now, his ashes travel through space forever. The pace here is brisk, but unrushed and sufficient time is taken on the key points, so there’s a wealth of knowledge here. Of course, this is just a taste of the historic mission story and data, but it is still an enlightening experience. I appreciated that time was devoted to the Kuiper Belt portion of the mission and I hope to learn more about that wild area, as Chasing Pluto offers some intriguing looks at the belt and the objects within. I recommend Chasing Pluto to anyone with an interest in science or space, another terrific episode from NOVA.