NASA’s historic flyby of Pluto completes 50 years of planetary reconnaissance missions.
In a coincidence of astronomical proportions, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has conducted the first flyby of Pluto on the 50th anniversary of the first flyby of Mars. NASA’s Mariner 4 probe became the first spacecraft to capture up-close images of another planet when it flew past Mars on July 14, 1965.
“50 years ago today, the first spacecraft flew by Mars — it was called Mariner 4 — and I think it’s fitting that on that 50th anniversary we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets with the exploration of Pluto.” New Horizons principle investigator Alan Stern said at a press conference following the historic flyby of Pluto.
While NASA’s Mariner 2 space probe was the first spacecraft to perform a flyby of another planet when it made its closest approach to Venus on Dec. 14, 1962, due to launch vehicle constraints it was not able to carry a camera among its scientific instruments.
This was not the first “cosmic coincidence” the New Horizon spacecraft has experienced on its nearly decade long journey through the solar system. On Aug. 25, 2014, New Horizons made its flyby of Neptune on the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s Neptune encounter.
Voyager 2 was the first spacecraft to visit Neptune and capture detailed images of the planet and its Great Dark Spot when it made its closest approach on Aug. 25, 1989. Voyager 2’s twin spacecraft, Voyager 1, had the option of becoming the first spacecraft to visit Pluto during its planetary reconnaissance mission, but instead was chosen to conduct a close flyby of Saturn’s moon, Titan, because it was deemed to have greater scientific value.