The human journey to the beginning of space and time stops at Pluto and its largest moon Charon
Space news (July 7, 2015) – 4.7 billion km (2.9 billion miles) from Earth and 24 million miles (39 million km) from dwarf planet Pluto and closing –
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is operating according to plans and is ready to view a new dawn for the human journey to the stars!
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is presently accelerating across the solar system toward dwarf planet Pluto and its biggest moon Charon after nine years voyaging across the solar system. Expectations are for a smooth and historic pass by the former ninth planet and it’s family of five known moons at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.
Space scientists are looking forward to a better view of terrain types on the surface of the planet and Charon as New Horizons flies past. They especially want to look at a mysterious dark region viewed on its pole that seems to be a little unusual.
“This system is just amazing,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “The science team is just ecstatic with what we see on Pluto’s close approach hemisphere: Every terrain type we see on the planet—including both the brightest and darkest surface areas —are represented there, it’s a wonderland!
“And about Charon—wow—I don’t think anyone expected Charon to reveal a mystery like dark terrains at its pole,” he continued. “Who ordered that?”
“The unambiguous detection of bright and dark terrain units on both Pluto and Charon indicates a wide range of diverse landscapes across the pair,” said science team co-investigator and imaging lead Jeff Moore, of NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California. “For example, the bright fringe we see on Pluto may represent frost deposited from an evaporating polar cap, which is now in the summer sun.”
First Color Images of Pluto and Charon
First discovered on February 18, 1930, by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, while working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the New Horizons spacecraft carries the ashes of the discoverer of Pluto to their historic up close meeting.
Charon first emerged from the shadow of Pluto on June 22, 1978, when discovered by US Naval Observatory astronomer James W. Christy and his colleague Robert Harrington.
There’s only on average 12,000 miles between Pluto and its moon Charon, which is over fifty percent of the size of the dwarf planet. Many astronomers and space scientists call this pair a double planet because of their close proximity in both distance and size.
This first color image of the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon was taken on April 9, 2015, by the Ralph color imager on New Horizons, when it was about 71 million miles away.
“It’s exciting to see Pluto and Charon in motion and in color,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. “Even at this low resolution, we can see that Pluto and Charon have different colors—Pluto is beige-orange while Charon is gray. Exactly why they are so different is the subject of debate.”
“Even though the latest images were made from more than 30 million miles away, they show an increasingly complex surface with clear evidence of discrete equatorial bright and dark regions—some that may also have variations in brightness,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “We can also see that every face of Pluto is different and that Pluto’s northern hemisphere displays substantial dark terrains though both Pluto’s darkest and its brightest known terrain units are just south of, or on, its equator. Why this is so is an emerging puzzle.”
“We’re squeezing as much information as we can out of these images, and seeing details we’ve never seen before,” said New Horizons Project Scientists Hal Weaver, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “We’ve seen evidence of light and dark spots in Hubble Space Telescope images and in previous New Horizons pictures, but these new images indicate an increasingly complex and nuanced surface. Now, we want to start to learn more about what these various surface units might be and what’s causing them. By early July, we will have spectroscopic data to help pinpoint that.”
High Noon on Dwarf Planet Pluto
What would high noon on Pluto be like? You might think it would be a dark time, considering its distance from the Sun, but there’s more light present than you think. The light present for a brief moment during dawn and dusk on Earth would be like high noon on this distant body.
Want to experience high noon on dwarf planet Pluto? NASA has created a unique and entertaining interactive widget allowing users to experience this moment here. This new tool tells users the exact time you need to go outside to view high noon on this distant and mysterious object in space.
The new tool also allows you to set reminders allowing you to schedule a session with your family or friends. Taking your children, wife, and interested friends along on your journey to Pluto’s, the best way to introduce people to the human journey to the beginning of space and time.
New Horizons Views Dwarf Planet‘s Four Small Moons
New Horizons recently provided this view of the two smallest and faintest of the five moons of Pluto; Nis, Styx, Hydra, Kerberos and the largest Charon as seen below. The mission is now within view of the entire family of this dwarf planet and in a few days time, we’ll get a close-up view of each member.
“New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery,” said mission science team member John Spencer, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before.”
The images of Kerberos and Styx above were taken using New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) between April 25 – May 1. If you look closely, Kerberos is also visible in the second image.
These images allowed space scientists to confirm the positions of the objects seen as an exact match for the predicted positions of Kerberos and Styx in relation to the Sun, the planets, and all mass bodies in the solar system.
For more information and facts concerning NASA‘s New Horizon mission go here.
To learn more about NASA’s space mission go here.
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