Ultima Thule (Kuiper Belt) photographed by New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft that was launched on 19 January 2006 and passed Pluto on 14 July 2015 continued travelling into the Kuiper Belt, and has just photographed an object named Ultima Thule (‘beyond the known world’).

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft.

Image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) by the New Horizons spacecraft.
Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

RNZ – NASA’s New Horizons: ‘Snowman’ shape of distant Ultima Thule revealed

A new picture returned from US space agency NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows the little world to be two objects joined together – to give a look like a “snowman”.

The US probe’s images acquired as it approached Ultima hinted at the possibility of a double body, but the first detailed picture confirms it.

New Horizons encountered Ultima 6.5 billion km from Earth.

The event set a record for the most distant ever exploration of a Solar System object. The previous mark was also set by New Horizons when it flew past the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015.

But Ultima is a further 1.5 billion km further out.

Jeff Moore, a New Horizons co-investigator from NASA’s Ames Research Center, said the pair would have come together at very low speed, at maybe 2-3km/h. He joked that if they were cars, “you probably wouldn’t fill out the insurance form.

Ultima orbits the Sun in a region of the Solar System known as the Kuiper belt.

There are hundreds of thousands of Kuiper members like Ultima, and their frigid state almost certainly holds clues to how all planetary bodies came into being some 4.6 billion years ago.

About New Horizons and Ultima Thule:

The New Horizons team used the Hubble Space Telescope to search for the next Kuiper Belt object to fly by after Pluto. Using observations made with Hubble on June 26, 2014, the science team discovered an object that New Horizons could reach with its available fuel. The object was subsequently designated 2014 MU69, given the minor planet number 485968, and based on public votes, nicknamed “Ultima Thule”, which means “beyond the known world”.

Ultima Thule is located in the Kuiper belt in the outermost regions of the Solar System, beyond the orbit of Neptune. In the early morning of January 1st 2019 Eastern Time, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Ultima Thule at a distance of 3500 km (2200 miles). At this time, Ultima Thule will be at a distance of almost 6.5 billion km (4 billion miles) from the Sun, making this the most distant planetary flyby that has yet been attempted, and the first time that a Solar System object of this type has been seen close-up.

Ultima Thule measures approximately 30 km in diameter, and is irregularly shaped. In July 2017, Ultima Thule passed in front of a star as seen from Earth (a stellar occultation), allowing astronomers to determine that its shape is most likely a contact binary (two bodies that are touching) or a close binary system (two objects that are orbiting each other). An artist’s impression of Ultima Thule as a contact binary is shown in the accompanying picture.

We will only know what Ultima Thule’s surface looks like once New Horizons has sent back the first pictures after it has flown by, although based on observations of similar-sized Solar System objects, it will almost certainly display impact craters. The lighting environment at its surface is very dim, as it receives only about 0.05% of the light from the Sun that Earth does. We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish color, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years. The flyby will also reveal whether it has any moons, or even a ring system. Ultima Thule belongs to a class of Kuiper belt objects called the “cold classicals”, which have nearly circular orbits with low inclinations to the solar plane, and which have not been perturbed since their formation perhaps 4.6 billion years ago. Ultima Thule will therefore be the most primitive planetary object yet explored, and will reveal to us what conditions were like in this distant part of the Solar System as it condensed from the solar nebula.



Charon and Pluto

We were wowed in July when the New Horizons spacecraft sent back initial photos as it sped past Pluto. Since then it has been gradually sending back data and now, more detailed photos. Recent pictures have been published of Pluto and it’s dwarf planet partner, Charon.

Charon in Enhanced Color NASA’s New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers).

Charon is half the diameter of Pluto but that makes it the largest moon in the solar system relative to it’s planet (Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet).

This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale.

Source and more details: Pluto’s Big Moon Charon Reveals a Colorful and Violent History

Pluto orbits around the joint gravitational centre due to the proximity and relative size of Charon.

Some comparative sizes

  • Charon 1,208 km
  • Pluto 2,370 km
  • Moon 3,475 km
  • Mercury 4,879 km
  • Mars 6,779 km
  • Venus 12,104 km
  • Earth 12,742 km

There’s been more detailed pictures of Pluto published too, including:

Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands.

In this extended color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s day-night terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from the larger, high-resolution mosaic above, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains.

More at http://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/pluto-s-heart

Nix, Hydra and Pluto

An update on the New Horizons exploration of Pluto, with photos of Pluto’s second and third moons, Nix and Hydra.

Pluto’s moon Nix (left), shown here in enhanced color as imaged by the New Horizons Ralph instrument, has a reddish spot that has attracted the interest of mission scientists. The data were obtained on the morning of July 14, 2015, and received on the ground on July 18. At the time the observations were taken New Horizons was about 102,000 miles (165,000 km) from Nix. The image shows features as small as approximately 2 miles (3 kilometers) across on Nix, which is estimated to be 26 miles (42 kilometers) long and 22 miles (36 kilometers) wide.

Pluto’s small, irregularly shaped moon Hydra (right) is revealed in this black and white image taken from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument on July 14, 2015 from a distance of about 143,000 miles (231,000 kilometers). Features as small as 0.7 miles (1.2 kilometers) are visible on Hydra, which measures 34 miles (55 kilometers) in length.


More at New Horizons ‘Captures’ Two of Pluto’s Smaller Moons

And NASA have released another close-up of Pluto’s surface: NASA’s New Horizons Finds Second Mountain Range in Pluto’s ‘Heart’

Pluto's mountain range

A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto’s Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain. This image was acquired by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.

Pluto’s icy mountains have company. NASA’s New Horizons mission has discovered a new, apparently less lofty mountain range on the lower-left edge of Pluto’s best known feature, the bright, heart-shaped region named Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region).

These newly-discovered frozen peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile (1-1.5 kilometers) high, about the same height as the United States’ Appalachian Mountains. The Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) discovered by New Horizons on July 15 more closely approximate the height of the taller Rocky Mountains.

The new range is just west of the region within Pluto’s heart called Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain). The peaks lie some 68 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Norgay Montes.

This newest image further illustrates the remarkably well-defined topography along the western edge of Tombaugh Regio.

“There is a pronounced difference in texture between the younger, frozen plains to the east and the dark, heavily-cratered terrain to the west,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “There’s a complex interaction going on between the bright and the dark materials that we’re still trying to understand.”

While Sputnik Planum is believed to be relatively young in geological terms – perhaps less than 100 million years old – the darker region probably dates back billions of years. Moore notes that the bright, sediment-like material appears to be filling in old craters (for example, the bright circular feature to the lower left of center).

This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The names of features on Pluto have all been given on an informal basis by the New Horizons team.


There will be a lot more to come from New Horizons.

And NASA have also been looking for planets elsewhere: Nasa discovers Earth-like planet

Scientists using NASA’s powerful Kepler telescope have found a planet beyond the solar system that is a close match to Earth.

The planet, which is about 60 per cent bigger than Earth, is located about 1400 light years away in the constellation Cygnus, the scientists told a news conference on Friday (NZT).

While similarly sized planets have been found before, the latest one, known as Kepler-452b, is circling a star that is very similar but older than our sun, at a distance about the same as Earth’s orbit.

Images with the article are just ‘artist’s concept’ so meaningless, as the revelations on a far closer planet, Pluto have proven. They have no idea what planets in other solar systems will look like.

Second set of Pluto flyby photos – craterless plains

From the second NASA media conference after the Pluto fly-by. There are still just skimming the surface, there is a lot more data to come (for sixteen months).

More evidence of recent (100 million years) geological activity.

They estimate there’s about 500 tons per hour of mainly nitrogen escaping (evaporation) – an expected rate, not yet measured.

In the latest data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, a new close-up image of Pluto reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”

In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” – lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite.


Zoomed area:


This fascinating icy plains region — resembling frozen mud cracks on Earth — has been informally named “Sputnik Planum” (Sputnik Plain) after the Earth’s first artificial satellite. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs. Some of these troughs have darker material within them, while others are traced by clumps of hills that appear to rise above the surrounding terrain. Elsewhere, the surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by a process called sublimation, in which ice turns directly from solid to gas, just as dry ice does on Earth.

Scientists have two working theories as to how these segments were formed. The irregular shapes may be the result of the contraction of surface materials, similar to what happens when mud dries. Alternatively, they may be a product of convection, similar to wax rising in a lava lamp. On Pluto, convection would occur within a surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen, driven by the scant warmth of Pluto’s interior.

Further zoomed to Sputnik Planum – Frozen, craterless plains discovered in heart of Pluto’s ‘heart’

Closeup of Pluto surface heart-shaped feature showing plain

In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” – lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite.

The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image.

This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain).

Erosion would have to be by sublimation.

NASA2Pluto4Pluto’s icy plains also display dark streaks that are a few miles long. These streaks appear to be aligned in the same direction and may have been produced by winds blowing across the frozen surface.

Compared to Triton – appeared to be covered by wind streaks so they are comparable.

The Tuesday “heart of the heart” image was taken when New Horizons was 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from Pluto, and shows features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across. Mission scientists will learn more about these mysterious terrains from higher-resolution and stereo images that New Horizons will pull from its digital recorders and send back to Earth during the next year.

The New Horizons Atmospheres team observed Pluto’s atmosphere as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above the surface, demonstrating that Pluto’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere is quite extended. This is the first observation of Pluto’s atmosphere at altitudes higher than 170 miles above the surface (270 kilometers).

The New Horizons Particles and Plasma team has discovered a region of cold, dense ionized gas tens of thousands of miles beyond Pluto — the planet’s atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind and lost to space.

“This is just a first tantalizing look at Pluto’s plasma environment,” said New Horizons co-investigator Fran Bagenal, University of Colorado, Boulder.

“With the flyby in the rearview mirror, a decade-long journey to Pluto is over –but, the science payoff is only beginning,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Data from New Horizons will continue to fuel discovery for years to come.”

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado, added, “We’ve only scratched the surface of our Pluto exploration, but it already seems clear to me that in the initial reconnaissance of the solar system, the best was saved for last.”

Re the dark stain areas, the ‘least crazy idea’ is they are probably higher hydro-carbons swept by winds.

They expect to create topographic maps of both Pluto and Charon.

They don’t know yet whether surface features come from deposits from above or up welling from beneath the surface.

The next media conference is scheduled for next Friday EST – Saturday morning 25 June NZ time.

Pluto views through the years

This week is the first time we have seen what Pluto actually looks like. Previously we have only had light blobs and artist’s impressions.

NASA have put together an animation of Views of Pluto Through the Years (it’s too fast for me to see properly) but also helpfully provided links to the source images.

Clyde Tombaugh, Lowell Observatory, 1930: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/multimedia/display.cfm?IM_ID=19989
Note: This image is property of the Lowell Observatory Archives. Any public use requires written permission of the Lowell Observatory Archives.

Hubble Space Telescope, 1994: Hubble Portrait of the “Double Planet” Pluto & Charon

MAY 16, 1994: This is the clearest view yet of the distant planet Pluto and its moon Charon, as revealed by the Hubble telescope.

Hubble snapped this image when the planet was 2.6 billion miles (4.4 billion kilometers) from Earth, or nearly 30 times the separation between Earth and the Sun. The two objects are shown as clearly separate and sharp disks.

Hubble’s corrected optics show the two objects as clearly separate and sharp disks. This now allows astronomers to measure directly (to within about 1 percent) Pluto’s diameter of 1440 miles (2320 kilometers) and Charon’s diameter of 790 miles (1270 kilometers). The Hubble observations show that Charon is bluer than Pluto. This means that both worlds have different surface composition and structure. A bright highlight on Pluto suggests it has a smoothly reflecting surface layer.

A detailed analysis of the Hubble image also suggests there is a bright area parallel to the equator on Pluto. This result is consistent with surface brightness models based on previous ground-based photometric observations. However, subsequent HST observations will be required to confirm whether the feature is real.

Hubble Space Telescope, 1996: Hubble Reveals Surface of Pluto for First Time

MARCH 7, 1996: For the first time since Pluto’s discovery 66 years ago, astronomers have at last directly seen details on the surface of the solar system’s farthest known planet.

The Hubble telescope’s snapshots of nearly the entire surface of Pluto, taken as the planet rotated through a 6.4-day period, show that Pluto is a complex object, with more large-scale contrast than any planet, except Earth. Topographic features such as basins, or fresh impact craters may cause some of the variations across Pluto’s surface.

The two smaller inset pictures at the top are actual images from Hubble. North is up. Each square pixel (picture element) is more than 100 miles across. At this resolution, Hubble discerns roughly 12 major “regions” where the surface is either bright or dark.

The larger images (bottom) are from a global map constructed through computer image processing performed on the Hubble data. The tile pattern is an artifact of the image enhancement technique.

Opposite hemispheres of Pluto are seen in these two views. Some of the variations across Pluto’s surface may be caused by topographic features such as basins, or fresh impact craters. However, most of the surface features unveiled by Hubble, including the prominent northern polar cap, are likely produced by the complex distribution of frosts that migrate across Pluto’s surface with its orbital and seasonal cycles and chemical byproducts deposited out of Pluto’s nitrogen-methane atmosphere.

The picture was taken in blue light when Pluto was at a distance of 3 billion miles from Earth (4,800,000,000 kilometres).

Hubble Space Telescope, 2002-2003: New Hubble Maps of Pluto Show Surface Changes

(The dates look odd from this link)

FEBRUARY 4, 2010: Since its discovery in 1930, Pluto has been a speck of light in the largest ground-based telescopes. But NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has now mapped the dwarf planet in never-before-seen detail. The new map is so good, astronomers have even been able to detect changes on the dwarf planet’s surface by comparing Hubble images taken in 1994 with the newer images taken in 2002-2003. The task is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away.

Hubble’s view isn’t sharp enough to see craters or mountains, if they exist on the surface, but Hubble reveals a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange, and charcoal-black terrain. The overall color is believed to be a result of ultraviolet radiation from the distant Sun breaking up methane that is present on Pluto’s surface, leaving behind a dark, molasses-colored, carbon-rich residue. Astronomers were very surprised to see that Pluto’s brightness has changed — the northern pole is brighter and the southern hemisphere is darker and redder. Summer is approaching Pluto’s north pole, and this may cause surface ices to melt and refreeze in the colder shadowed portion of the planet. The Hubble pictures underscore that Pluto is not simply a ball of ice and rock but a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes.

Hubble Space Telescope, 2011: NASA’s Hubble Discovers Another Moon Around Pluto

These two images, taken about a week apart by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, show four moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. The green circle in both snapshots marks the newly discovered moon, temporarily dubbed P4, found by Hubble in June.

P4 is the smallest moon yet found around Pluto, with an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km). By comparison, Pluto’s largest moon Charon is 746 miles (1,200 km) across. Nix and Hydra are roughly 20 to 70 miles (32 to 113 km) wide.

The new moon lies between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, two satellites discovered by Hubble in 2005. It completes an orbit around Pluto roughly every 31 days.

The moon was first seen in a photo taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on June 28, 2011. The sighting was confirmed in follow-up Hubble observations taken July 3 and July 18.

P4, Nix, and Hydra are so small and so faint that scientists combined short and long exposures to create this image of Pluto and its entire moon system. The speckled background is camera “noise” produced during the long exposures. The linear features are imaging artifacts.

New Horizons, April 9, 2015: First Pluto-Charon Color Image from New Horizons

This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on April 9. It is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach. The image is a preliminary reconstruction, which will be refined later by the New Horizons science team. Clearly visible are both Pluto and the Texas-sized Charon. The image was made from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers)-roughly the distance from the Sun to Venus.

New Horizons, May 12, 2015: More Detail as New Horizons Draws Closer

The image of Pluto on the right is part of series of New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) photos taken May 8-12, 2015; the image at left shows LORRI’s view of Pluto just one month earlier. In the month between these image sets, New Horizons’ distance to Pluto decreased from 68 million miles (110 million kilometers) to 47 million miles (75 million kilometers), as the spacecraft speeds toward a close encounter with the Pluto system in mid-July.

Between April and May, Pluto appears to get larger as the spacecraft gets closer, with Pluto’s apparent size increasing by approximately 50 percent. Pluto rotates around its axis every 6.4 Earth days, and these images show the variations in Pluto’s surface features during its rotation.

New Horizons, June 2, 2015: Faces of Pluto

New Horizons, June 15, 2015: Features on the Close Approach Hemisphere

New Horizons, July 1, 2015: Three Views of Pluto

Image details are as follows.
Left: Taken on July 1st at 22:53 UT, from a range of 9.2 million miles (14.9 million km), with a central longitude of 133°.
Center: Taken on July 3rd at 04:38 UT, from a range of 8.3 million miles (13.5 million km), with a central longitude of 63°.
Right: Taken on July 3rd at 23:25 UT, from a range of 7.8 million miles (12.5 million km), with a central longitude of 19°.

New Horizons, July 3, 2015:  A Pluto Color Combo

New Horizons, July 7, 2015: A Heart on Pluto

Just under 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) from Pluto

This view is centered roughly on the area that will be seen close-up during New Horizons’ July 14 closest approach. Most prominent are an elongated dark feature at the equator, informally known as “the whale,” and a large heart-shaped bright area measuring some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) across on the right. Above those features is a polar region that is intermediate in brightness.

New Horizons, July 8, 2015: Signs of Geology

3.3 million miles (5.4 million kilometers) away. At this range, Pluto is beginning to reveal the first signs of discrete geologic features. This image views the side of Pluto that always faces its largest moon, Charon.

Same image of Pluto with Charon.

New Horizons, July 11, 2015: New Horizons’ Last Portrait of Pluto’s Puzzling Spots

2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto. New Horizons’ last look at Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere.

New Horizons July 11: A Portrait from the Final Approach to Pluto and Charon

A portrait from the final approach. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image from July 11, showing high-resolution black-and-white LORRI images colorized with Ralph data collected from the last rotation of Pluto. Color data being returned by the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus.

New Horizons, July 14, 2015: Pluto’s Big Heart in Color

476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13. 

This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) is complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.

New Horizons, July 15, 2015: Mountains on Pluto

Icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon, are among the several discoveries announced Wednesday by NASA’s New Horizons team, just one day after the spacecraft’s first ever Pluto flyby.

A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.

The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer at SwRI.

The new view of Charon reveals a youthful and varied terrain. Scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters. A swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely the result of internal geological processes. The image also shows a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep. In Charon’s north polar region, the dark surface markings have a diffuse boundary, suggesting a thin deposit or stain on the surface.

New Horizons also observed the smaller members of the Pluto system, which includes four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. A new sneak-peek image of Hydra is the first to reveal its apparent irregular shape and its size, estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles (43 by 33 kilometers).

The observations also indicate Hydra’s surface is probably coated with water ice. Future images will reveal more clues about the formation of this and the other moon billions of years ago. Spectroscopic data from New Horizons’ Ralph instruments reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto.

Comparing Pluto and Charon to another planet:

This graphic presents a view of Pluto and Charon as they would appear if placed slightly above Earth’s surface and viewed from a great distance.  Recent measurements obtained by New Horizons indicate that Pluto has a diameter of 2370 km, 18.5% that of Earth’s, while Charon has a diameter of 1208 km, 9.5% that of Earth’s.

First pictures from Pluto fly-by

NASA is revealing the first photos from the New Horizons fly-by of Pluto (the spacecraft is already 1.5 million kilometres past Pluto already). Better quality images will come later.

They start by looking at some of Pluto’s moons. This is the first picture ever of Hydra:


Since its discovery in 2005, Pluto’s moon Hydra has been known only as a fuzzy dot of uncertain shape, size, and reflectivity. Imaging obtained during New Horizons’ historic transit of the Pluto-Charon system and transmitted to Earth early this morning has definitively resolved these fundamental properties of Pluto’s outermost moon. Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) observations revealed an irregularly shaped body characterized by significant brightness variations over the surface. With a resolution of 2 miles (3 kilometers) per pixel, the LORRI image shows the tiny potato-shaped moon measures 27 miles (43 kilometers) by 20 miles (33 kilometers).

Like that of Charon, Hydra’s surface is probably covered with water ice, the most abundant ice in the universe. Observed within Hydra’s bright regions is a darker circular structure with a diameter of approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers). Hydra’s reflectivity (the percentage of incident light reflected from the surface) is intermediate between that of Pluto and Charon. “New Horizons has finally nailed the basic physical properties of Hydra,” says Hal Weaver, New Horizons Project Scientist and LORRI science operations lead. “We’re going to see Hydra even better in the images yet to come.”

Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

Hydra was approximately 400,000 miles away from New Horizons when the image was acquired.

Charon natural colour image:


Pluto’s largest moon Charon has youthful terrain & dark area nicknamed ‘Mordor’ in north

Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles  (466,000 kilometers).

A swath of cliffs and troughs stretches about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from left to right, suggesting widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely a result of internal processes. At upper right, along the moon’s curving edge, is a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep.

Mission scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters on Charon. South of the moon’s equator, at the bottom of this image, terrain is lit by the slanting rays of the sun, creating shadows that make it easier to distinguish topography. Even here, however, relatively few craters are visible, indicating a relatively young surface that has been reshaped by geologic activity.

In Charon’s north polar region, a dark marking prominent in New Horizons’ approach images is now seen to have a diffuse boundary, suggesting it is a thin deposit of dark material. Underlying it is a distinct, sharply bounded, angular feature; higher resolution images still to come are expected to shed more light on this enigmatic region.

The image has been compressed to reduce its file size for transmission to Earth. In high-contrast areas of the image, features as small as 3 miles (5 kilometers) across can be seen. Some lower-contrast detail is obscured by the compression of the image, which may make some areas appear smoother than they really are. The uncompressed version still resides in New Horizons’ computer memory and is scheduled to be transmitted at a later date.

The image has been combined with color information obtained by New Horizons’ Ralph instrument on July 13.

Now Pluto zoomed in, the first of a mosaic that will:


New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.

The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system — and may still be in the process of building, says Jeff Moore of New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI). That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

Moore and his colleagues base the youthful age estimate on the lack of craters in this scene. Like the rest of Pluto, this region would presumably have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered — unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” says Moore.

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The mountains are probably composed of Pluto’s water-ice “bedrock.”

Although methane and nitrogen ice covers much of the surface of Pluto, these materials are not strong enough to build the mountains. Instead, a stiffer material, most likely water-ice, created the peaks. “At Pluto’s temperatures, water-ice behaves more like rock,” said deputy GGI lead Bill McKinnon of Washington University, St. Louis.

The close-up image was taken about 1.5 hours before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 478,000 miles (770,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet. The image easily resolves structures smaller than a mile across.

Image Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI

The lack of impact craters observed in this picture and on all of Pluto suggests that it is geologically a very young planet.

An isolated small planet that’s showing recent activity. Very active.

The bedrock that makes those mountains must be made of water ice – H2O.

They have no idea at this stage how the mountains have formed.

The youthful surface is a major surprise.

There will be heaps more details and photos to come. This is just the tip of the ice planet.

For reference here is the long distance shot of Pluto from a couple of days ago.


The zoomed image above is of the bottom edge of what you see here.

Waiting for Pluto (New Horizons)

NASA have advised that the New Horizons spacecraft will have passed Pluto and they are waiting for status updates to return to Earth.

Transmissions ceased during the fly-by and while gathering data. Confirmation signals are expected at about 9 pm US EST which is 1 pm New Zealand time.

NASA reports: NASA’s Three-Billion-Mile Journey to Pluto Reaches Historic Encounter

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is at Pluto.

After a decade-long journey through our solar system, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday, about 7,750 miles (about 12500 km) above the surface — roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India (about the same as New York to Fiji or Dunedin to Houston) — making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth.

Per the plan, the spacecraft currently is in data-gathering mode and not in contact with flight controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physical Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Scientists are waiting to find out whether New Horizons “phones home,” transmitting to Earth a series of status updates that indicate the spacecraft survived the flyby and is in good health. The “call” is expected shortly after 9 p.m. tonight.

New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.

However NASA have posted another photo of Pluto, the closest yet:

Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015 when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13.

This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) are complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.
Credits: NASA/APL/SwRI

If all has gone well then we should be getting much better pictures than this, perhaps by tomorrow NZ time.

Pluto has just been measured more accurately:

How Big Is Pluto? New Horizons Settles Decades-Long Debate

Mission scientists have found Pluto to be 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter, somewhat larger than many prior estimates. Images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were used to make this determination. This result confirms what was already suspected: Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune.

“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon, Washington University, St. Louis.

Pluto’s newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher. Also, the lowest layer of Pluto’s atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.

Measuring Pluto’s size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere. Its largest moon Charon lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes. New Horizons observations of Charon confirm previous estimates of 751 miles (1208 km) kilometers) across.

Comparisons of size:

  • Ceres (asteroid belt) 963 km
  • Charon (Pluto’s moon) 1,208 km
  • Makemake (Kuiper Belt) about (1502 ± 45) × (1430 ± 9) km
  • Eris (dwarf planet) 2,326 ± 12 km
  • Pluto 2,370 km
  • Europa (moon of Jupiter) 3,122 km
  • Moon 3,475 km
  • Io (moon of Jupiter) 3,660 x 3631 km
  • Callisto (moon of Jupiter) 4,822 km
  • Mercury 4,879 km
  • Titan (moon of Saturn) 5,150 km
  • Ganymede (moon of Jupiter) 5,262 km
  • Mars 6,779 km
  • Venus 12,104 km
  • Earth 12,742 km
  • Neptune 49,244 km
  • Uranus 50,724 km
  • Saturn 116,464 km
  • Jupiter 139,822 km

Some background:

New Horizons’ almost 10-year, three-billion-mile journey to closest approach at Pluto took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space — the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.

Because New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched – hurtling through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph, a collision with a particle as small as a grain of rice could incapacitate the spacecraft. Once it reestablishes contact Tuesday night, it will take 16 months for New Horizons to send its cache of data — 10 years’ worth — back to Earth.

New Horizons is the latest in a long line of scientific accomplishments at NASA, including multiple rovers exploring the surface of Mars, the Cassini spacecraft that has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn and the Hubble Space Telescope, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. All of this scientific research and discovery is helping to inform the agency’s plan to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.

“After nearly 15 years of planning, building, and flying the New Horizons spacecraft across the solar system, we’ve reached our goal,” said project manager Glen Fountain at APL “The bounty of what we’ve collected is about to unfold.”

Pluto fly-by tonight

The New Horizons spacecraft is due to fly past Pluto tonight at 11:49:57 p.m. New Zealand Time time (7:49 AM Monday, US Eastern Time, Tuesday 14 2015).

Because of very slow transmission rates it is likely to be another day before data and images are received back here on Earth so if all goes well hope for something by Thursday morning.

The last photo of Pluto before preparing for the flyby was taken two days ago, and is the first time contours have been seen.

Pluto photographed in black and white on July 11, 2015

For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Just starting to rotate into view on the left side of the image is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach.

Annotated details:

And there is also a photo of one of Pluto’s four known moons.

Charon’s Chasms and Craters

Pluto's moon Charon
Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015.
Pluto's moon Charon
Chasms, craters, and a dark north polar region are revealed in this image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons on July 11, 2015. The annotated version includes a diagram showing Charon’s north pole, equator, and central meridian, with the features highlighted.

New Horizons’ newest images reveal Pluto’s largest moon Charon to be a world of chasms and craters. The most pronounced chasm, which lies in the southern hemisphere, is longer and miles deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, according to William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics investigation team.

“This is the first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon,” says McKinnon, who is based at the Washington University in St. Louis. “New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity.”

The most prominent crater, which lies near the equator of Charon in an image taken July 11 and radioed to Earth today, is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across. The brightness of the rays of material blasted out of the crater suggest it formed relatively recently in geologic terms, during a collision with a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) some time in the last billion years.

Follow the path of the spacecraft in coming days in real time with a visualization of the actual trajectory data, using NASA’s online Eyes on Pluto.

Stay in touch with the New Horizons mission with #PlutoFlyby and on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/new.horizons1

Pluto fly-by next week

After a nine year journey NASA’s New Horizons space probe is closing in on Pluto and will fly within about 12,000 kilometres on July 14 (next Tuesday/Wednesday). It will be a brief look as it is travelling at about 50,000 km per hour.

If it all goes according to plan a large amount of data will be gathered – it will take 16 months to transmit it all back to Earth.

The best photos ever of Pluto are already beaming back.


Composite photo of Pluto taken July 7

BBC reports New Horizons snaps Pluto from eight million km.

At closest approach, New Horizons will be about 12,500km above the surface.

Its high-resolution camera Lorri should then be able to discern features at a resolution better than 100m per pixel.

Lorri is responsible for the view seen on this page, too, but the colour information has been overlaid from the probe’s other camera, Ralph.

“They’re still a little blurry but they’re by far the best pictures we’ve ever seen of Pluto, and they’re only going to get better,” said John Spencer from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, US, one of the New Horizons co-investigators.

“Right now they’re just showing us that Pluto is really weird. It’s got some extremely dark areas, some extremely bright areas, and we don’t know what any of them are yet,” Dr Spencer told Newshour on the BBC World Service.

He and his colleagues believe the brightest patch might be covered in frozen carbon monoxide, while the dark swathe may be a deposit of hydrocarbons, burnt out of Pluto’s atmosphere by UV light and cosmic rays.

But this is all guesswork at the moment.

“We will get pictures 500 times better than this next Tuesday, when we have our closest approach,” Dr Spencer said.

Vox: NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, explained

New Horizons’ brief moment with Pluto will mark a historic moment in space exploration. For the first time in a generation — since the Voyager 2 probe swooped by Neptune in 1989 — we’re going to see an entirely new world for the first time. But it’ll also be the last time. As Dennis Overbye puts in an excellent New York Times column, “None of us alive today will see a new planet up close for the first time again.”

1) We’re about to see Pluto for the first time

Lots of people assume we’ve seen Pluto before, but they’re likely thinking of artists’ renderings or illustrations.

2) We’ll also learn about Pluto’s moons (two weren’t discovered until 2012)

Pluto is very unusual in that it’s a fraction of the size of Earth but has five moons. The dwarf planet slightly orbits the largest moon, Charon (leading some to suggest the pair could best be described as a double planet system), and three of the smaller moons are swept up in the pair’s gravitational field, leading to bizarre, chaotic orbits of their own.

3) This mission has been in the works for decades

NASA engineers actually considered sending the Voyager 1 probe to Pluto after it flew by Saturn in 1980, but chose to send it to Saturn’s moon Titan instead.

For years, they were unsuccessful. During the 1990s, NASA scientists proposed four different Pluto missions but NASA and Congress ultimately failed to provide money for any of them. Finally, in 2003, Congress approved a slimmed-down, relatively small probe to launch to Pluto in 2006: New Horizons.

4) The tiny probe had a 3 billion mile journey to Pluto

Engineers chose a small probe that would be launched atop a very large rocket (an Atlas V), so it could be sent off at the fastest speed possible. It left Earth’s atmosphere traveling faster than any spacecraft ever: 36,373 miles per hour.

It spent most of the subsequent journey in hibernation, though it did wake up when flying by Jupiter in 2007, taking photos of the giant planet and using its gravity to slingshot itself outward to Pluto.

5) The journey to Pluto wasn’t always easy

In 2011 and 2012, astronomers discovered two new moons of Pluto — Kerberos and Styx — leading mission scientists to worry that Pluto might be surrounded by more debris than anticipated, possibly endangering the spacecraft. Subsequent calculations showed the chance of such an impact wasextremely low.

Additionally, this past weekend, New Horizons unexpectedly went into safe mode, switching to a backup computer because of a software glitch. NASA says the problem has been solved and won’t pose any further issues.

6) The mission scientists aren’t too worried about whether Pluto is a planet

Just eight months after the probe was launched, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially decided that Pluto was no longer a planet — instead, it’d be categorized as a dwarf planet. The reasoning was partially based on Pluto’s tiny size, and partially on the fact that, in recent years, astronomers found several other similarly sized objects in the same region of space (called the Kuiper belt), including Eris, a dwarf planet that’s actually more massive than Pluto.

7) The spacecraft will tell us lots of other things about Pluto

New Horizons has seven different scientific instruments aboard.

  • The main cameras (Ralph, Alice, and LORRI) will also be able to tell us the chemical composition and temperature of Pluto’s surface, as well as the density and temperature of its atmosphere.
  • PEPSSI (Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation) will detect particles escaping from the dwarf planet’s nitrogen-based atmosphere, telling us what other elements are present.
  • SWAP (Solar Wind Around Pluto) will provide data on how these particles interact with the solar wind — the charged plasma released by the sun that emanates throughout the solar system. Together, these two data sets will help us understand how Pluto’s atmosphere fluctuates over time due to its varying distance from the sun.
  • The Student Dust Counter — designed and built by students at University of Colorado Boulder — will provide new information on the density of dust in the outer solar system.
  • After the flyby, REX (Radio Science Experiment) will transmit and receive radio signals through its atmosphere. By analyzing these signals when they reach radio dishes on Earth, we’ll learn about the pressure, temperature, and composition of the atmosphere.

9) All the data will come back at a snail’s pace

Because New Horizons is so far away, it takes about 4.5 hours for any data it sends back to reach Earth. And the signal is so faint that NASA has to use 200-foot-wide radio dishes (one each in Australia, California, and Spain) to pick it up.

This means an extremely low rate of data transmission: about 1 kilobit per second, more than 50 times slower than a 56k modem from the ’90s. So it takes more than 42 minutes for New Horizons to fully transmit an image that’s 1024 pixels wide.

10) New Horizons will continue on to another destination

Plans call for the spacecraft to fly to visit another Kuiper belt object. Scientists are deciding between two potential objects, both of which are about 30 to 50 miles wide. If all goes to plan, the probe will reach one of them in 2019.

NASA: July 9th Daily Briefing for New Horizons/Pluto Mission Pre-Flyby

July 9th daily pre-flyby overview of the New Horizons mission, the spacecraft and its suite of instruments and a summary of Pluto science to date from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, site of the mission operations center.