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

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NASA’s Space Mission Shows ‘New Horizons’ of Pluto and Charon

The human journey to the beginning of space and time stops at Pluto and its largest moon Charon

pluto-new-horizons-art

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.

Watch this video of Pluto and it’s biggest moon Charon taken on June 22, 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. 

The Ralph imager on New Horizons took the first color image, seen here, of Pluto and Charon on April 9, 2015. Clearly visible are Pluto and Texas-sized Charon, the smaller dot. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
The Ralph imager on New Horizons took the first color image, seen here, of Pluto and Charon on April 9, 2015. Clearly visible are Pluto and Texas-sized Charon, the smaller dot.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This is the first movie created by New Horizons to reveal color surface features of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. “It’s a bit unusual to see so much surface detail at this distance,” said New Horizons co-investigator William McKinnon of the Geology and Geophysics Investigation Team, Washington University in Saint Louis. “What’s especially noteworthy is the level of detail in both bodies. It’s certainly whetting our appetite for what’s to come.” The images were taken between June 23 and June 29, 2015, as New Horizons’ distance to Pluto decreased from a distance of 15 million to 11 million miles (24 million to 18 million kilometers). Six high-resolution black-and-white images from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to produce the movie.
This is the first movie created by New Horizons to reveal color surface features of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. “It’s a bit unusual to see so much surface detail at this distance,” said New Horizons co-investigator William McKinnon of the Geology and Geophysics Investigation Team, Washington University in Saint Louis. “What’s especially noteworthy is the level of detail in both bodies. It’s certainly whetting our appetite for what’s to come.”
The images were taken between June 23 and June 29, 2015, as New Horizons’ distance to Pluto decreased from a distance of 15 million to 11 million miles (24 million to 18 million kilometers). Six high-resolution black-and-white images from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to produce the movie.

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.

Pluto and its largest moon Charon seen from New Horizons on July 1, 2015. The inset shows Pluto enlarged; features as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Pluto and its largest moon Charon as seen from New Horizons on July 1, 2015. The inset shows Pluto enlarged; features as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across are visible.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

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

Pluto and its largest moon Charon seen from New Horizons on July 1, 2015. The inset shows Pluto enlarged; features as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Pluto and its largest moon Charon as seen from New Horizons on July 1, 2015. The inset shows Pluto enlarged; features as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across are visible.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
These images, taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show four different “faces” of Pluto as it rotates about its axis with a period of 6.4 days. All the images have been rotated to align Pluto's rotational axis with the vertical direction (up-down) on the figure, as depicted schematically in the upper left.From left to right, the images were taken when Pluto’s central longitude was 17, 63, 130, and 243 degrees, respectively. The date of each image, the distance of the New Horizons spacecraft from Pluto, and the number of days until Pluto closest approach are all indicated in the figure. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
These images, taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show four different “faces” of Pluto as it rotates about its axis with a period of 6.4 days. All the images have been rotated to align Pluto’s rotational axis with the vertical direction (up-down) on the figure, as depicted schematically in the upper left.From left to right, the images were taken when Pluto’s central longitude was 17, 63, 130, and 243 degrees, respectively. The date of each image, the distance of the New Horizons spacecraft from Pluto, and the number of days until Pluto closest approach are all indicated in the figure.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce
These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce “false” details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks. All of the images are displayed using the same brightness scale.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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.

Read about the missing link in black hole evolution.

Learn more about NASA’s search for business and private partners to enable the human journey to the stars.

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