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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Pluto

Considered the ninth planet for nearly 75 years, the second biggest dwarf planet discovered in the solar system. Pluto was originally given the name of the Greek god of the underworld by 11-year-old Venetia Burney.

This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. The center disk (180 degrees) has a mysterious bright spot that is unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. Pluto is so small and distant that the task of resolving the surface is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute). Photo No. STScI-PR10-06a
This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. The center disk (180 degrees) has a mysterious bright spot that is unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. Pluto is so small and distant that the task of resolving the surface is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute). Photo No. STScI-PR10-06a

Space & Astronomy Wiki – the planets in the solar system –

The furthest of the original nine planets in the solar system from Sol at 3.7 billion miles (5.9 billion km) or 39.5 AU, Pluto is the second biggest dwarf planet behind Eris, which is about 28 percent more massive.

In 2005, this image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope was used to identify two new moons orbiting Pluto. Pluto is in the center. The moon Charon is just below it. The newly discovered moons, Nix and Hydra, are to the right of Pluto and Charon. Credits: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST
In 2005, this image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was used to identify two new moons orbiting Pluto. Pluto is in the center. The moon Charon is just below it. The newly discovered moons, Nix, and Hydra are to the right of Pluto and Charon.
Credits: NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI), and the HST

Orbited by moons Charon, Nix, Styx, Kerberos, and Hydra, Pluto was discovered on February 18, 1930, by Clyde W. Tombaugh. Charon is almost 50 percent the size of Pluto and is believed to be the result of a collision between a planet-sized object and the dwarf planet early in the history of the solar system.

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If the icy surface of Pluto's giant moon Charon is cracked, analysis of the fractures could reveal if its interior was warm, perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water, according to a new NASA-funded study.
If the icy surface of Pluto’s giant moon Charon is cracked, analysis of the fractures could reveal if its interior was warm, perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water, according to a new NASA-funded study.

With only 12, 173 miles (19, 591 km) between Pluto and Charon, astronomers and space scientists consider the pair to be a double planet system. The entire Pluto system is part of the distant Kuiper Belt, a distant disk-like region beyond the orbit of Neptune full of icy bodies formed during the early history of the solar system.

darksideimage
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this image of Pluto’s dark side with the Sun on the other side of this distant, lonely wanderer. Sunlight filters through and illuminates complex layers of atmospheric haze. Credit: NASA/New Horizons/JHUAPL/SwRI

A day on Pluto is about 153 hours long, which is the time it takes the dwarf planet to spin once on its axis, and a year, the time it takes this distant object it orbit the Sun, takes about 248 Earth years.

The structure of Pluto is not very well understood at present. Nevertheless, spectroscopic observation from Earth in the 1970s has revealed that the planet surface is covered with methane ice. Surface temperature is -230 degrees C, and the frozen methane exhibits a bright coloration. However, with the exception of the polar caps, the frozen methane surface is seen to change to a dark red on the basis of observation of eclipse by its moon Charon. Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute
The structure of Pluto is not very well understood at present. Nevertheless, spectroscopic observation from Earth in the 1970s has revealed that the planet surface is covered with methane ice. Surface temperature is -230 degrees C and the frozen methane exhibits a bright coloration. However, with the exception of the polar caps, the frozen methane surface is seen to change to a dark red on the basis of observation of eclipse by its moon Charon.
Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

What are planetary scientists saying?

Some planetary scientists think Pluto could have an ocean hidden beneath its icy surface, but this cold and distant body isn’t thought to be a place life could exist. Scientists estimate this dwarf planet has three times as much water in the form of ice as contained within the oceans of Earth.

How big is Pluto’s atmosphere? This is not a typical question one finds in planetary science. Earth’s atmosphere has an equivalent thickness – the thickness if you compress the atmosphere to uniform pressure and density – of about 10 kilometers, or six miles. Compare this with the radius of Earth, 6,370 kilometers, and you see that the razor-thin thickness of Earth’s atmosphere is about 0.17% of its radius. Even if you consider the “outer limit” of Earth’s neutral atmosphere, what we call the exobase, that reaches about 600 kilometers altitude, the atmosphere’s equivalent thickness is only 10% of Earth’s radius—still very thin. So the volume of Earth’s atmosphere is tiny compared to Earth’s volume. Michael E. Summers is a professor of Planetary Science and Astronomy at George Mason University, and specializes in the study of the chemistry and dynamics of planetary atmospheres. He is a New Horizons co-investigator and member of the atmospheres science theme team.
How big is Pluto’s atmosphere? This is not a typical question one finds in planetary science. Earth’s atmosphere has an equivalent thickness – the thickness if you compress the atmosphere to uniform pressure and density – of about 10 kilometers or six miles. Compare this with the radius of Earth, 6,370 kilometers, and you see that the razor-thin thickness of Earth’s atmosphere is about 0.17% of its radius. Even if you consider the “outer limit” of Earth’s neutral atmosphere, what we call the exobase, that reaches about 600 kilometers altitude, the atmosphere’s equivalent thickness is only 10% of Earth’s radius—still very thin. So the volume of Earth’s atmosphere is tiny compared to Earth’s volume.
Michael E. Summers is a professor of Planetary Science and Astronomy at George Mason University and specializes in the study of the chemistry and dynamics of planetary atmospheres. He is a New Horizons co-investigator and member of the atmospheres science theme team.

The surface is also covered by frozen methane and nitrogen gas, which thaws as Pluto nears the Sun, forming a thin atmosphere composed primarily of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, with a little methane thrown in.

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NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this enhanced-color image of the southeastern region of Pluto’s great plains of ice called Sputnik Planum. At lower right these plains border rugged, dark highlands that rise 1.5 miles above them. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is the only human envoy to be sent to the Pluto system.

For more information on Pluto go here.

Follow New Horizons as it writes space history here.

Follow NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it closes in on Pluto and Charon and prepares to write space history.

Read about the search for the missing link in black hole evolution.

Learn how your firm or private institution can become a leader in the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

To be a Planet, or Not to be a Planet?

Astronomers are constantly rethinking old theories and designing new ones to fit new ideas

Astronomy News – astrophysics: planets; the number and type of planets

Count the planets in the solar system and make an assessment of their various sizes and distances from Sol and the Earth as you leave on your “Journey to the Beginning of Space and Time”. You’ll find that the line between planet and smaller planetoids, like asteroids and meteorites, has yet to be firmly set in place in the astronomy books, and in the universe.

We were all taught during our school indoctrination of nine planets circling Sol at varying distances. Mercury and Venus lie closest to Sol, with the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn residing at greater distances from Sol, while Uranus, Neptune, and disputed Pluto orbit at the greatest distance on average as compared to the other planets. Millions of school and reference books, thousands of articles, and countless periodicals also include references to Pluto being officially recognized as the ninth planet in the solar system. The publishers of these publications will be calling for a rewrite of all of this material and the history books will have to be changed if some astronomers and space scientists have their way.

Planet X came spinning into the view of Caltech astronomer Michael Brown on July 29, 2005 and changed the way astronomers and star gazers think about Pluto and the definition of a planet. An icy, Kuiper Belt resident Michael named after Xena the warrior goddess of the famed television series, at least until the International Astronomical Union speaks on this matter, Planet x orbits Sol at a distance nearly twice as great as Pluto’s. Planet X’s 560-year orbit is also inclined to the ecliptic by nearly twice as much as Pluto’s, which results in Planet X being closer to Sol than Pluto during its orbit, at times.

Planet X is still a bit of an enigma to astronomers

Astronomy takes you to the Kuiper Belt
The largest Kuiper Belt objects compared

How much bigger is Planet X than Pluto? Astronomers have measured the brightness and distance of Planet X from Sol, as compared to objects of known brightness in the solar system. Based on their data and calculations, astronomers believe Planet X to be bigger than Pluto, but just how much bigger has yet to be firmly etched in stone by the various astronomical societies and agencies tasked with determining if Planet X is indeed bigger than Pluto and by how much. This fuzzy-news has pushed Pluto into tenth place in the nine planet race in the solar system and into second place in the size ranking of the objects in the Kuiper Belt and astronomers, and star gazers have only searched a small percentage of the Kuiper Belt for objects bigger than Pluto.

Will bigger objects than Planet X be discovered in the Kuiper Belt or somewhere on the outer fringes of the solar system? The first Kuiper Belt objects were viewed by star gazers and astronomers in the early 1990s, but since this time, larger and larger objects have been located in the Kuiper Belt. In 2002, an object half the size of Pluto was discovered floating in the Kuiper Belt, which astronomers named Quaoar. Just two years later, 2004DW and Sedna were discovered, each respectively two-thirds and three-quarters the size of Pluto. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, if star gazers and astronomers were to find an even larger object floating in the Kuiper Belt than Planet X at some point in the human “Journey to the Beginning of Space and Time”.

The definition of a planet has changed over the years

Hubble has given us our best views of Pluto, so far. This photo shows Charon as well.
Compare the various sizes of the planets as you pass by
A distance object at best, Pluto looks quiet and serene here

The Earth being round was old news to ancient astronomers

Read about China rejoining the human journey to the beginning of space and time

Are you looking for a great apochromatic refractor to keep you company on long nights during the winter?