The eagerly anticipated flyby of Pluto by New Horizons has been dampened by the revelation that the lens cap was still in place on the spacecraft’s camera at the time of launch.
Scientists involved in the project to visit the dwarf planet for the first time were initially puzzled by the black images that New Horizons was sending back when its camera was activated, as they were pretty sure that despite space being over 99.99999% empty darkness, they would see a few stars here and there.
The project leader explains that it took them a while to work out what really happened. “We initially considered the hypothesis that in the Kuiper Belt there is a previously unknown body so massive it’s gravitationally lensing all starlight away from the region between Neptune and Pluto’s orbits, and then a body so luminous it saturated and blew the camera’s CCD. But then we realised that the guy coming up with all these explanations was responsible for attaching the sensors to the spacecraft so we put two and two together.” The New Horizons team is now placing their hopes on intelligent life existing elsewhere in the Solar System and taking the lens cap off for them.
New Horizons was launched in January 2006, too soon for Pluto’s IAU demotion to dwarf planet to cancel or redirect it towards a celestial body that had the decency to clear the neighbourhood around its orbit.