Planetary Resources Inc. Planning on Mining an Asteroid

One 300-500 meter asteroid has enough resources to make it financially feasible to mine for ore and water

Space news ( September 02, 2015) – Finding and moving an asteroid of this size with the right composition safely to the right location for mining is the difficult part 

Here is an illustration that shows the three typical orbit patterns of near-Earth asteroids. You can see that the Aten, Amor and Apollo orbits come very close to, and sometimes intersect, with the Earth’s orbit. When this occurs we observe them and can even rendezvous with them with our Arkyd spacecraft. Credit: Planetary Resources, Inc.
Here is an illustration that shows the three typical orbit patterns of near-Earth asteroids. You can see that the Aten, Amor and Apollo orbits come very close to, and sometimes intersect, with the Earth’s orbit. When this occurs we observe them and can even rendezvous with them with our Arkyd spacecraft. Credit: Planetary Resources, Inc.

Planetary Resources Inc. is currently doing a survey of potential asteroids with the right composition close enough to make mining safely feasible. Potential asteroids are all closer to Earth than Main Belt asteroids, which are much more difficult to reach and mine for ore and water. Mining a Main Belt asteroid is a project for the future and one better done from a location closer to the target area.

1999 JU3 is on Planetary Resources Target list. It is a known carbonaceous asteroid that is predicted to be worth trillions. Image Credit: Planetary Resources, Inc. http://www.planetaryresources.com/asteroids/#asteroids-targets
1999 JU3 is on Planetary Resources Target list. It is a known carbonaceous asteroid that is predicted to be worth trillions. Image Credit: Planetary Resources, Inc. http://www.planetaryresources.com/asteroids/#asteroids-targets

At this point, Planetary Resources is gathering together the data collected by scientists during the last two decades on over 11,000 potential asteroids, along with nearly a million possible targets located in the Main Belt. Using this data they have developed a list of potential asteroids they’re currently following and evaluating for further prospecting. 

Prospecting potential asteroids using specifically designed spacecraft

In Planetary Resources factory in Redmond, WA engineers and scientists are developing advanced spacecraft capable of traveling to and prospecting potential asteroids. Called Arkyd rendezvous prospectors, these low-cost spacecraft are equipped with hyperspectral and infrared sensors, which will allow scientists to gather data on the composition of potential asteroids. They’ll also analyze data collected and send it back to Earth to be evaluated by geologists for mining feasibility.

Planetary Resources engineers are currently testing this space prospecting technology in low-Earth orbit. The Arkyd 3R deployed from the International Space Station during July. Engineers and scientists are presently testing systems and technologies designed for use in future Arkyd spacecraft.

Arkyd 6 launching in 2015
Arkyd 6 launching in 2015

Work continues

Later in 2015, Planetary Resources is planning on launching Arkyd 6 (A6), a slightly larger and more robust spacecraft carrying an infrared imaging sensor geologists want to use to look at asteroids for water and water-bearing minerals. The data they collect using their Arkyd 3R and A6 spacecraft will be used to define a mission profile for the feasible mining of a potential asteroid in the near future.

For more information on Planetary Resources and plans to mine an asteroid visit here.

For more information on asteroids go here.

Learn about a Magnetar found orbiting Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole astronomers believe resides at the center of the Milky Way.

Read about the first Earth-sized exoplanet discovered suitable as a cradle for a new human genesis.

Learn more about the current search for habitable planets and life beyond Earth.

Astrophysicists Detect Mysterious Radio Emissions Emanating From Brown Dwarf Stars

Clues indicate “failed stars” generate Auroral displays a million times more powerful than on Earth 

This artist's concept shows an auroral display on a brown dwarf. If you could see an aurora on a brown dwarf, it would be a million times brighter than an aurora on Earth. Credits: Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan/Caltech
This artist’s concept shows an auroral display on a brown dwarf. If you could see an aurora on a brown dwarf, it would be a million times brighter than an aurora on Earth.
Credits: Chuck Carter and Gregg Hallinan/Caltech

Space news (August 16, 2015) – 18.6 light-years from Earth

Called “failed stars” because they don’t have enough mass to fuse hydrogen in their cores and being too big to be classified as planets, brown dwarfs have been a focus of study for astrophysicists because their atmospheres’ are thought to be very similar to conditions on many of the exoplanets we have discovered.

Studying the atmosphere of cool brown dwarfs is easier than trying to gather data on the atmosphere of an exoplanet. Light from the parent star interferes with the readings taken of the atmosphere of an exoplanet, making it harder to view through all the glare.

“It’s challenging to study the atmosphere of an exoplanet because there’s often a much brighter star nearby, whose light muddles observations. But we can look at the atmosphere of a brown dwarf without this difficulty,” Greg Hallinan said.

Astrophysicists studying brown dwarfs since the early 2000s using a trio of observatories have detected brilliant auroras dancing across the atmosphere of brown dwarf LSRJ1835+3259. Vivid red auroras, due to the higher hydrogen content of its atmosphere, estimated to be a million times more energetic than any viewed on Earth. 

This is a whole new manifestation of magnetic activity for that kind of object,” said Leon Harding, a technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and co-author of the study.

Auroras viewed on Earth are produced when charged particles, mostly electrons, from the solar wind strike atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere above the poles, resulting in vivid displays of mostly green colors that dance across the sky.

As the electrons spiral down toward the atmosphere, they produce radio emissions, and then when they hit the atmosphere, they excite hydrogen in a process that occurs on Earth and other planets,” said Gregg Hallinan, assistant professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who led the team. “We now know that this kind of auroral behavior is extending all the way from planets up to brown dwarfs.

What’s next?

Astrophysicists will now continue their studies of brown dwarfs using the Astronomy Observatory Very Large Array in New Mexico, the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and the Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. Plans to map the auroras of LSRJ1835+3259 are being discussed to see if they can find the source of the solar winds generating them. Brown dwarfs don’t generate a solar wind like other stars, so they’re kind of at a loss at this point as to the source. 

My vote is for an orbiting exoplanet moving through the magnetosphere of LSRJ1835+3259 generating a current producing spectacular, vivid red auroras that light up the atmosphere. A show one of our robot explorers may view up close one day, but for now, astrophysicists will have to settle for studying it from a distance.

At the very least, studying brown dwarfs will help astrophysicists understand the atmospheres’ of exoplanets viewed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, better. 

Hallinan and the rest of the team are also hoping to take a close look at the magnetic fields of exoplanets in the future. The Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array is coming online and plans are to take a few measurements of candidates in the Exoplanet Zoo.

You can learn more about NASA’s mission to the stars here.

You can discover the Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array here.

Take a look at all the discoveries of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory here.

Discover the W.M. Keck Observatory here.

Learn more about the mission of the Palomar Observatory here.

Learn about the way galaxies merge to become one.

Read about the discovery of the first nearly Earth-sized exoplanet.

Learn about the discovery of geysers on the southern polar region of Enceladus erupting icy grains of water and organic materials into the E ring of Saturn.

Magnetar Extremely Close to Supermassive Black Hole at Center of Milky Way

Exhibiting a higher surface temperature and slower decrease in the rate of x-rays emitted than previous neutron stars detected during the human journey to the beginning of space and time

The x-ray image here taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory shows a view of the region surrounding the supermassive black hole thought to exist at the center of the Milky Way. The red, green and blue seen in the main image are low, medium and high-energy x-rays respectively. The inset image to the left was taken between 2005 and 2008, when the magnetar wasn't detected. The image to the right was taken in 2013, when the neutron star appeared as the bright x-ray source viewed.
The x-ray image here taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory shows a view of the region surrounding the supermassive black hole thought to exist at the center of the Milky Way. The red, green and blue seen in the main image are low, medium and high-energy x-rays respectively. The inset image to the left was taken between 2005 and 2008, when the magnetar wasn’t detected. The image to the right was taken in 2013, when the neutron star appeared as the bright x-ray source viewed.

Space news (August 15, 2015) –

Space scientists working with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory in 2013 discovered a magnetar dangerously close to the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A) thought to exist at the center of the Milky Way. At a distance of around 0.3 light-years or 2 trillion miles from the 4-million-solar mass black hole, the neutron star (called SGR 1745-2900) detected is likely orbiting slowly into the gravitational pool of the supermassive black hole. One day, far in the future, the two will merge during an event likely spectacular and unfathomable to both the scientist and layperson.

For the last two years, NASA and European space agency scientists have been monitoring SGR 1745-2900, and have discovered its acting unlike any magnetar discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

The rate of X-rays emitted by the magnetar is decreasing slower than other neutron stars viewed and its surface temperature is higher. Facts that are making astrophysicists rethink their theories on neutron stars and develop new ideas to explain how this happens.

Could the close proximity of the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A be the cause?

Considering the extreme distance between the supermassive black hole and magnetar, astrophysicists don’t think this could be the reason for the slower decrease in X-ray emissions and higher surface temperature of SGR 1745-2900. At the distance of 2 trillion miles, they believe the magnetar is too far away for the gravity and magnetic fields of the two to interact enough for this to occur.

The current model developed by astrophysicists to explain the unexpected slower rate of X-ray emissions and higher surface temperature of SGR 1745-2900 involves “starquakes”. Seismic waves astrophysicists think are more energetic than a 23rd magnitude earthquake on Earth, scientists found the starquake model doesn’t explain the slow decrease in X-ray brightness and the higher surface temperature detected.

To explain the new data obtained through study using the Chandra X-ray Observatory NASA astrophysicists have suggested a new model. The bombardment of the surface of SGR 1745-2900 by charged particles trapped within magnetic fields above its surface could add enough heat to account for the higher surface temperature and account for the slower decrease in X-ray emissions.

Study continues

NASA scientists will now continue their study of magnetar SGR 1745-2900 as it orbits Sagittarius A looking for clues to verify their new model. Study and understanding of this and other magnetars will provide clues to the events that occurred during the earliest moments of the universe. Events that can tell us more about the universe we reside in and the true nature of spacetime.

You can learn more about supermassive black holes here.

Read and learn more about magnetars here.

You can read about and follow NASA’s mission to the stars here.

Read about some of the discoveries made by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its visit to Pluto.

Learn more about the human search for Earth 2.0.

Learn about and take part in the search for near-Earth objects space scientists indicate could be a problem in the future.

A Brief Moment in Cosmic Time

Tens of thousands of human years in length

A dying star’s final moments are captured in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The death throes of this star may only last mere moments on a cosmological timescale, but this star’s demise is still quite lengthy by our standards, lasting tens of thousands of years! The star’s agony has culminated in a wonderful planetary nebula known as NGC 6565, a cloud of gas that was ejected from the star after strong stellar winds pushed the star’s outer layers away into space. Once enough material was ejected, the star’s luminous core was exposed and it began to produce ultraviolet radiation, exciting the surrounding gas to varying degrees and causing it to radiate in an attractive array of colours. These same colours can be seen in the famous and impressive Ring Nebula (heic1310), a prominent example of a nebula like this one. Planetary nebulae are illuminated for around 10 000 years before the central star begins to cool and shrink to become a white dwarf. When this happens, the star’s light drastically diminishes and ceases to excite the surrounding gas, so the nebula fades from view. A version of this image was entered into the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures basic image competition by contestant Matej Novak.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Matej Novak
Text credit: European Space Agency

Space news (August 14, 2015) – planetary nebula NGC 6565; 6 degrees off center of the Milky Way, 15,200 light-years toward constellation Sagittarius, about halfway to the central core 

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of a dying star during the final moments of its life cycle. Lasting tens of thousands of years on human time scales, the death of this star is but a brief moment in cosmic time.

Called planetary nebula NGC 6565, Hen 2-362 or ESO 456-70, depending on the space institute or astronomer you ask, this object will eventually shrink down to become a white dwarf star. 

Similar to the color display to the well-known Ring Nebula (heic 1310), the stunning cloud of colorful gas seen here was ejected from the dying star due to strong stellar winds pushing the outer layers into space. The luminous core viewed was exposed in the process, which allowed ultraviolet radiation to excite the surrounding gas to different temperatures, producing this visually attractive display of color. 

NASA scientists study planetary nebula like NGC 6565 to better understand the life cycle and death of stars that end their lives as white dwarf stars. The data obtained through the study of this planetary nebula will be added to the material already obtained concerning similar stellar objects. This will help astrophysics develop better ideas and theories concerning the life of stars that end their days as white dwarf stars.

You can learn more about the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope here.

Read more about planetary nebula here.

You can learn and follow NASA’s mission to the stars here.

Learn more about infant suns and their life cycles.

Read about NASA’s search for ultra-light weight materials with the right stuff to help enable the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Read about ancient dust containing metal ions falling onto Mars atmosphere from Oort Cloud comet.

 

 

 

Planetary Nebula NGC 6818 Shows a Different Face

Little Gem Nebula shows off complex, knotty filament structures with a bright, enclosed central gas bubble surrounded by larger, more diffuse gas clouds

This colourful bubble is a planetary nebula called NGC 6818, also known as the Little Gem Nebula. It is located in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), roughly 6000 light-years away from us. The rich glow of the cloud is just over half a light-year across — humongous compared to its tiny central star — but still a little gem on a cosmic scale. When stars like the Sun enter retirement, they shed their outer layers into space to create glowing clouds of gas called planetary nebulae. This ejection of mass is uneven, and planetary nebulae can have very complex shapes. NGC 6818 shows knotty filament-like structures and distinct layers of material, with a bright and enclosed central bubble surrounded by a larger, more diffuse cloud. Scientists believe that the stellar wind from the central star propels the outflowing material, sculpting the elongated shape of NGC 6818. As this fast wind smashes through the slower-moving cloud it creates particularly bright blowouts at the bubble’s outer layers. Hubble previously imaged this nebula back in 1997 with its Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, using a mix of filters that highlighted emission from ionised oxygen and hydrogen (opo9811h). This image, while from the same camera, uses different filters to reveal a different view of the nebula. A version of the image was submitted to the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Judy Schmidt.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Space news (August 15, 2015) – approximately 6,000 light-years toward the constellation Sagittarius (The Archer) –

When NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope first looked at the Little Gem Nebula (NGC 6818) using the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 back in 1997, the image obtained was done so with filters that highlighted ionized oxygen and hydrogen in the planetary nebula.

This image of the Little Gem Nebula shows off complex structures with a bright, enclosed central gas bubble surrounded by larger, more diffuse gas clouds obtained using different filters. Offering the human journey to the beginning of space and time a totally different view of this spectacular stellar object.  

Our own Sun billions of years in the future will shed its outer layers into space to create a glowing cloud of gas similar to planetary nebula NGC 6818. Space scientists believe the stellar wind created by the star at the center of this planetary nebula provides the force to propel the uneven outflowing mass.

Studying the final days of sun-like stars provides scientists with data concerning the life cycle of stars similar in size and output to the Sun. Data they can use to devise new ideas and theories to delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding the closest star to Earth.

You can find more information on planetary nebula here.

Learn more about NASA’s space mission here.

You can learn more about the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope here.

Learn about NASA’s New Horizons recent arrival and current exploration of Pluto.

Read about plans to take the human journey to the stars on a billion mile journey to Jupiter’s moon Europa to look for signs of life.

Learn more about main sequence stars like the Sun.

 

Hubble Survey Links Galaxy Mergers with Presence of Active Galactic Nuclei

That are thought to be the result of huge volumes of heated matter circling around and being consumed by a supermassive black hole

Astrophysicists have wondered since discovering relativistic jets what could power such an awesome display of power. Space scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope just completed the largest survey ever conducted on this question. What they found might surprize you?
Astrophysicists have wondered since discovering relativistic jets what could power such an awesome display of power. Space scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope just completed the largest survey ever conducted on this question. What they found might surprise you?

Space news (August 12, 2015) – Astrophysics; studying galaxies with extremely luminous centers looking for clues to high-speed, radio-signal-emitting jets extending thousands of light-years into space

NASA space scientists working with the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on the Hubble Space Telescope think they have found a possible link between galaxy mergers and the presence of active galactic nuclei (AGN).

With a
With a “panchromatic” grasp of light extending from the ultraviolet through the visible and into the infrared, is an extremely powerful imaging instrument, extending Hubble’s capabilities by seeing deeper into the universe. WFC3 is viewed as an important bridge to the infrared observations that will be carried out with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) following its launch in 2013.

“The galaxies that host these relativistic jets give out large amounts of radiation at radio wavelengths,” explains Marco.“By using Hubble’s WFC3 camera we found that almost all of the galaxies with large amounts of radio emission, implying the presence of jets, were associated with mergers. However, it was not only the galaxies containing jets that showed evidence of mergers!”

Active galactic nuclei refer to the luminous center of a small percentage of galaxies viewed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Luminous centers space scientists often detect emitting two high-speed jets of plasma in opposite directions at right angles to the disk of matter surrounding the supermassive black hole believed to exist near the center of these galaxies. Powerful, radio-signal-emitting jets astrophysicists call relativistic jets they think could be powered by huge volumes of heated matter circling around and eventually being consumed by the supermassive black hole. Heated matter astrophysicists think could have been provided by the chaos of a recent merger with another galaxy.

How did they conduct the study?

NASA astrophysicists studied a large selection of galaxies with extremely luminous centers looking for signs of a recent merger with another galaxy. Data from several different additional studies was used to enhance the data set. Space scientists in this study looked at five different types of galaxies; two types with relativistic jets, two with luminous cores but no jets, and a set of regular inactive galaxies. 

What did they find?

Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)
Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope’s ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)

They found a large percentage of the galaxies viewed showed evidence of mergers with other galaxies, including all those with extremely luminous centers. They also found that a very small percentage of galaxies viewed formed AGNs with powerful radio emissions and even less relativistic jets extending thousands of light-years into space.

“We found that most merger events in themselves do not actually result in the creation of AGNs with powerful radio emission,” added co-author Roberto Gilli from Osservatorio Astronomico di Bologna, Italy. “About 40% of the other galaxies we looked at had also experienced a merger and yet had failed to produce the spectacular radio emissions and jets of their counterparts.”

What’s next?

Astrophysicists looking at the data provided through this survey of galaxies with AGNs believe it could be necessary for galaxies to merge to produce a host supermassive black hole with relativistic jets. They also think additional parameters need to exist for the merger to result in this spectacular and awe-inspiring sight. Possibly the result of two black holes of similar mass merging could power these high-speed jets viewed during the human journey to the beginning of space and time as excess energy is extracted from the black hole’s rotational energy is added to the mix.

“There are two ways in which mergers are likely to affect the central black hole. The first would be an increase in the amount of gas being driven towards the galaxy’s centre, adding mass to both the black hole and the disc of matter around it,” explains Colin Norman, co-author of the paper. “But this process should affect black holes in all merging galaxies, and yet not all merging galaxies with black holes end up with jets, so it is not enough to explain how these jets come about. The other possibility is that a merger between two massive galaxies causes two black holes of a similar mass to also merge. It could be that a particular breed of merger between two black holes produces a single spinning supermassive black hole, accounting for the production of jets.”

What’s next?

Astrophysicists and space scientists will now use both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) to expand the search for additional galaxies with extremely luminous centers. This will enhance the survey and provide more data on additional parameters to help shed light on galaxies with AGNs. For now, we can only say it appears galaxies viewed exhibiting relativistic jets have merged with other galaxies.

Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) to
Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA)

Learn more about NASA’s mission to the stars here.

Explore NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope here.

Learn more about the current search for life beyond Earth

Discover NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto and moon Charon.

Read about NASA’s search for materials with the right stuff to help enable the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

Pluto Shows Planetary Scientists Geophysical and Atmospheric Surprises

Exotic ice floes and distinct layers of haze above dwarf planet’s surface

New Horizons discovers flowing ices in Pluto’s heart-shaped feature. In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons discovers flowing ices in Pluto’s heart-shaped feature. In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Space news (July 29, 2015) – 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Earth and headed into the Kuiper Belt

NASA space scientists looking at LORRI images and data sent back to Earth by the New Horizons spacecraft ten days after closest approach to the dwarf planet Pluto received a nice surprise. Exotic ices flowing across the surface of the dwarf planet Pluto as glaciers do on Earth and possibly Mars. Indicating geological activity planetary scientists had dreamed of but didn’t truly expect to find, and the possibility even bodies at extreme distances from the Sun could be crucibles for the ingredients of life.

“We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now — 10 days after closest approach — we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.”

Photo caption: The sheet of ice visible here on the plain informally called Sputnik Planum appears to have flowed, and could still be moving, as glaciers do on Earth. This plain rests within the western half of Pluto's noted heart-shaped feature called Tombaugh Regio and could be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, methane ices, and other compounds.
Photo caption: The sheet of ice visible here on the plain informally called Sputnik Planum appears to have flowed, and could still be moving, as glaciers do on Earth. This plain rests within the western half of Pluto’s noted heart-shaped feature called Tombaugh Regio and could be rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, methane ices, and other compounds.

“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” said mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. “I’m really smiling.”

“At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics, and the Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis. “In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer ice deposits.”

Space scientists combined four New Horizon images taken by LORRI with color data from the Ralph Instrument to produce this stunning global view of Pluto taken at a distance of 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from the spacecraft.
Space scientists combined four New Horizon images taken by LORRI with color data from the Ralph Instrument to produce this stunning global view of Pluto taken at a distance of 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) from the spacecraft.

Detailed analysis of LORRI images taken of Pluto’s surface reveals a global pattern of ice floe zones varying according to latitude. The darkest surface terrains are found near the equator region, with mid-toned terrains being mainly located in mid-latitudes, and lighter colored terrains covering the North Polar Region.

Mountain Ranges Viewed on Pluto’s Sputnik Planum

Planetary scientists have named the two peaks of the mountain range Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains) for Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with legendary mountain guide Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest in 1953. Rising over 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) above the surface of the planet, image climbing to the top of these peaks, a feat humankind could one day attempt and achieve. This would truly be an inspiring moment during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

This LORRI image shows the surface terrain of Pluto are much more complicated than planetary scientists first thought. Notice the polygonal shape of many of the plains viewed, two magnificent mountain ranges, and cratered terrain that looks like ice has recently been deposited.
This LORRI image shows the surface terrain of Pluto is much more complicated than planetary scientists first thought. Notice the polygonal shape of many of the plains viewed, two magnificent mountain ranges and cratered terrain that looks like ice has recently been deposited.

“For many years, we referred to Pluto as the Everest of planetary exploration,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “It’s fitting that the two climbers who first summited Earth’s highest mountain, Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay, now have their names on this new Everest.”

View a video here of a simulated flyover of Sputnik Planum and Pluto’s recently viewed mountain range called Hillary Montes.

Seven hours after reaching its point of closest approach to Pluto, New Horizons looked back at the dwarf planet through its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) just in time to view sunlight beaming through its atmosphere highlight gasses rising as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its surface. Subsequent analysis of images revealed two distinct gas layers, one at around 30 miles (50 kilometers), and the other at 50 miles (80 kilometers).

“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries — it brings incredible beauty.”

Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Planetary scientists believe the hazes detected in the LORRI images form through a process in which sunlight breaks up methane gas particles, which have been detected in the atmosphere of Pluto. This process leads to the formation of more complex hydrocarbon gasses, like ethylene and acetylene, which have been detected by New Horizons.  These heavier compounds fall to the lower regions of Pluto’s atmosphere, where they condense into ice particles that form the hazes viewed. The ice particles are then struck by ultraviolet sunlight, which converts them into the dark hydrocarbons covering the surface of the dwarf planet.

This theory is different than first thoughts on the possibility of this process occurring, in fact, space scientists had previously calculated temperatures would be too warm for such hazes to form above the altitude of 20 miles (30 kilometers). It appears they’ll have to devise a new theory for how the hazes detected could form so far from the surface of Pluto.

Presently around 7.6 million miles (12.2 million kilometers) from Pluto and flying deeper into the Kuiper Belt, New Horizons will continue to send data back to Earth through this year and 2016. All involved in the mission expect to discover more and more about dwarf planets, the Kuiper Belt, and the Solar System as the human journey to the beginning of space and time heads into unseen territory searching for the unknown.

Learn more about NASA’s space mission here.

Learn more about NASA’s New Horizons mission and discover dwarf planet Pluto and its moons here.

Read about NASA’s New Horizons of the Human Journey to the Beginning of Space and Time

Learn about the search for the missing link in black hole evolution

Read about clear skies and hot water vapor detected on Neptune-size exoplanets