Greetings from Pluto!

Greetings from Pluto!
July 15, 2016 paperlesslion

More than three years have passed since the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto on July 14, 2015. After a 3-billion mile voyage from Earth via Jupiter, New Horizons hit a bulls-eye, getting as close as 7,767 miles above the dwarf planet’s icy surface. The data returned continues to amaze.

To commemorate the historic mission’s first anniversary to the Pluto system, NASA compiled images to create a video that recreates the landing approach to Pluto:

More than 1,000 photographs and reams more scientific measurements have been downloaded to giant radio antennae on earth. Taking nine hours to travel more than 3 billion miles, the radio signal arrives at an infinitesimal fraction of the 12-to-14 watt broadcast from New Horizons. The radio signals arrive at earth with a strength of 4 x 10-(minus)-19 watts (that’s 0.00000000000000000004 of a watt!) “literally, a whisper from deep space” that strains giant antennae on earth.

Deep Space Network by Alex Cherney

Photo of the Australia Telescope Compact Array by expert photographer and amateur astronomer Alex Cherney.

About half of the data has been downloaded from the two solid-state hard drives aboard New Horizons. Monitor online and in real-time the signals reaching the Deep Space Network from New Horizons and other space probes in contact with the giant dish radio antennae circling the globe in Australia, Spain and the United States.

New Horizons’ flight path sent it past Pluto and into the planet’s shadow. The solar eclipse provided scientists on Earth with remarkable data: light passing through the thin atmosphere is picked up by a spectrometer onboard the spacecraft, which analyzes the chemical composition and other properties of the frozen world’s atmosphere. Researchers planned more than a decade ago for this photograph, putting the grand piano-sized spacecraft and its instruments on just the right course to capture the moment and take advantage of the seconds it passed through Pluto’s shadow, providing them with a spectacular view and invaluable new information.

DP Adios Pluto

“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 at today’s news briefing. “We’re going to need some new ideas to figure out what’s going on.”

The flight path also put New Horizons on course to later pass through the shadow of Charon an hour later. Those images show no signs of an atmosphere around Pluto’s largest moon.


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 received on Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.

The dark areas on the left side of the image above, nicknamed the Cthulhu Regio, may be a coating of complex hydrocarbons, part of an ancient terrain created at the beginning of the Solar System. The lighter areas on the right side likely are composed of ices likely made of frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane.

NASA planetary scientists analyzing the images reported finding evidence of enormous glacier-like ice flows, exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface, at the left edge of its bright heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio area. New close-up images from the spacecraft’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) reveal signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.


Photos from Pluto depict a terrain unlike any previously seen in the Solar System. Depicting what may be mountains made of ice harder than rock and plains covered by snowfalls of carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen. The new close-up images show fascinating detail within the Texas-sized plain (informally named Sputnik Planum) that lies within the western half of Pluto’s heart-shaped region, known as Tombaugh Regio.

“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.”

On Pluto, a sheet of ice clearly appears to have flowed—and may still be flowing—in a manner similar to glaciers on Earth, as seen in the image above. It is among the photographs and data now coming in from New Horizons, NASA’s spacecraft which made history on its closest encounter with the frozen world at the edge of the Solar System on Tuesday, July 14.

What a story the grand piano-sized spacecraft is going to tell over the coming 16 months as it downloads its data from 3 billion miles away. PBS and Detroit Public Television Ch. 56 broadcast Chasing Pluto, a special NOVA program chronicling the mission and the team behind it. Images of Pluto captured by the New Horizons probe also were featured.

The flyby of the dwarf planet is the culmination of the spacecraft’s three-billion-mile journey, which began in 2006. In 2010, PBS broadcast The Pluto Files detailing what was then known of the “dwarf planet.” Both programs now are available for viewing online.

The frozen plains in the heart of Pluto

New Horizons found 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) in honor of Pluto’s discoverer, appears as the “Heart of Pluto” in the image below.

DP Pluto close approach

When New Horizons blasted off on its mission in 2006, Pluto was still classified a planet. Members of the International Astronomical Union, however, voted in 2007 to re-classify Pluto as a “dwarf planet.” Alan Stern, principal investigator for the program, still thinks Pluto is a planet and a lot of people around the world agree with him. Chief of the team that designed and operates ALICE, the sensitive ultraviolet imaging spectrometer designed to probe the composition and structure of Pluto’s dynamic atmosphere, Dr. Stern’s eyes pop as he expresses happy surprise in the photo below.

Alan Stern reacts on seeing close up images from Pluto

The NASA mission is operated by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute. While the photo below represents the best picture yet of the Pluto, including the heart-shaped Tombaugh Region, named for Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer. The spacecraft carries some of his ashes and a number of artifacts and digital messages from Earth.

Charon n Pluto

Above are Charon on the left and Pluto on the right in color, imaged July 8, 2015 by New Horizons. They were photographed from a distance of about 3.7 million miles. The images of Pluto’s “encounter face” and its opposite side above shows two views of the planet (or dwarf planet) in natural color, inspiring some to call “Pluto, the Other Red Planet.”

Animated Flyover of Pluto’s Icy Mountain and Plains, a digital movie based on New Horizons photographs.

NASA recently released the images of Nix on the left and Hydra on the right, two of Pluto’s smaller moons, below. The image of Nix is in enhanced color, while Hydra is in black and white. Scientists have since downloaded sharper and more detailed images of the moons from computer storage aboard New Horizons.


Whatever its official astronomical label, Pluto represents a complicated system with at least five moons that tumble and wobble chaotically. The smaller ones will often shift their north-south orientation quickly and, so far, unpredictably, when the gravitational attraction of Pluto and Charon tug just so. One of the smartest people on this planet, who also happens to be a leading proponent of space exploration, Dr. Stern posts about the Pluto mission and system for Sky & Telescope magazine.

Emily Lakdawalla, writer and editor of  Snapshots from Space for the Planetary Society, also has kept a blog on the mission that is very informative and a great read. A proponent of science literacy, Ms. Lakdawalla also supports public participation in science. The Washington Post also provides an excellent graphic overview of what the mission is exploring at the edge of the Solar System.

Pluto has five known moons. In order of distance from Pluto they are: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. While Pluto’s largest moon Charon has grabbed most of the lunar spotlight, two of Pluto’s smaller and lesser-known satellites are starting to come into focus via new images from the New Horizons spacecraft.  Nix and Hydra – the second and third moons to be discovered – are approximately the same size, but their similarity ends there. Click for details.

After a nine year flight that’s covered more than 3 billion miles from earth, New Horizons has just passed closest approach. During its close encounter with Pluto and Charon, New Horizons took 1,200 photographs and made thousands of other measurements. It’s cameras and sensors have completed most of their measurements of Pluto and its five known moons.


Above is a cross-sectional, side-view schematic of the LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera. The instrument is similar to an 8-inch telescope adapted to take ultrasharp digital photographs in the low-light conditions and minus-390 degree Fahrenheit temperatures of deep space. LORRI is a very, very narrow angle lens, having only a 0.29° x 0.29° field of view. By contrast, a typical consumer camera lens has about a 45° x 35° field of view; human vision takes in about 120°. During its close encounter with Pluto and Charon, New Horizons took 1,200 photographs and made thousands of other measurements. When close to Pluto, LORRI’s small angle of view meant each image could only photograph a small section of the surface. The good news is each image contains a great deal of information. So, as each piece is downloaded, a mosaic of Pluto and Charon is built that holds great detail.

DP Pluto ion tail

As it leaves towards deeper space, the spacecraft will continue its work, such as measuring particles from Pluto’s atmosphere. Among its discoveries, New Horizons has detected a “tail” of cold, dense ions trailing behind Pluto, which extends a surprising distance from the tiny world into space.


Photos from Pluto depict a terrain unlike any previously seen in the Solar System. Depicting what may be mountains made of ice harder than rock and plains covered by snowfalls of carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen; the image above is humanity’s first close-up view of the surface of Pluto. It is among the photographs and data now coming in from New Horizons, NASA’s spacecraft which made history on its closest encounter with the frozen world at the edge of the Solar System on Tuesday, July 14.


Researchers are puzzled by the series of dark patches along Pluto’s equator; from the spacecraft’s perspective, seen along the lower edge in the image on the right.


The black and white image above corresponds to the hemisphere on the right in the color photo. The four spots are more sharply resolved, revealing a complex geology. The  image represents the best view yet of the “far side” of Pluto, the face of the planet opposite where New Horizons made its closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EST on Tuesday, July 14. It is believed the computers on New Horizon hold more photographic information that wil be used to build an even sharper image.


To get to where it is, now several million miles past Pluto, New Horizons first had to set course for Jupiter. While passing by the Jovian system, New Horizons tested out its equipment and made an important discovery: an active volcano on the moon Enceladus, seen in the images above.

Mission astrogators used the Jupiter’s giant gravity field to accelerate New Horizons, bending its flight path and shooting the probe toward Pluto. The gravity assist shaved three years off the flight to to Pluto, in its highly elliptical orbit about 3 billion miles away from the sun. NASA reported a similar, but smaller, gain in speed was achieved on its Pluto fly-by. New Horizons is the fastest manmade object ever, travelling almost 10 miles per second.

Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

Researchers intend to aim New Horizons toward an even more distant body, one of the frozen worlds of the Kuiper Belt, a region of space populated by chunks of ice and dust formed at the beginning of the solar system. Roughly speaking, the Kuiper Belt starts around the orbit of Neptune, about 30 times the distance of the earth to the sun (or 30 AU for “Astronomical Units”), and extends out to a distance of about 50 AU. While no icy body has yet been named as its next destination, scientists report it may take New Horizons 10-15 years flight before arrival. Atomic powered, New Horizons is expected to stay ship-shape well into the 2030s.


New Horizons gave everyone a big scare just as it approached Pluto. Ten days from closest approach, a computer glitch caused the spacecraft to shut down and break communications with earth. The Los Angeles Times tells the story of how the team on the ground managed to get the craft back up-and-running, despite a 9-hour round trip for radio commands.

With ongoing missions to Saturn, Mars, a comet, and an asteroid, the year 2015 has provided a spectacular summer of space science. For example, scientists analyzing data from the European Space Agency reported what they’ve learned from the Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and NASA’s Cassini mission at Saturn’s moon Enceladus, may indicate the presence of microbial life.

So. How do you get to Pluto? Like going to Carnegie Hall, kid: “Practice. Practice. Practice.” The resultant skills, abilities and confidence developed by scientists and engineers looks to have paid big dividends during the flyby, when the spacecraft made complicated changes in orientation to ensure the instruments aligned on various objects. Important among these are eclipses of the sun by Pluto and Charon as New Horizons passed into the shadows cast by the two bodies, allowing researchers to examine the atmospheric compositions of those two bodies.


NASA has developed a wonderful program for us on the home planet to enjoy monitor what the craft is doing at the present time: Eyes on Pluto. It almost makes one feel like the captain of the first ship to sail to a new world.


The image above is a detail from a painting by scientist-artist Thierry Lombry of NASA. The bright star between Charon and New Horizons is the sun, about as bright as seen from Pluto, where our star appears about 1/1,000th as bright as from Earth.


NASA invites the public to experience what “Pluto Time” is like by finding similar lighting conditions on earth. Step out into the gloaming, a bit after sunset, and you’ll have a good idea of how much sunlight reaches Pluto during its high noon. If you want, send NASA a photo to share, like the very cool, ultra-wide angle submission below, “Pluto Time in Hasting, Nebraska.”


Above are the relative sizes of Pluto, Charon and our home world, Earth. Earlier this week, NASA posted a remarkable reference, images of the first encounter with the major planets.

Views of Pluto Through the Years from NASA. Click here for details.

“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.” — Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute

Pluto and Charon are fascinating for space scientists, in part, because they are believed to be the result of a collision between two bodies when the Solar System was new, about 4.5 billion years ago. After colliding, Pluto retained most of materials from the impact, but Charon coalesced into a moon that is closer in size to its orbital partner than found in any other planetary system around the sun. The information gained from New Horizons may also shed light on the Earth-Moon system, also believed to have been formed in a collision between two different bodies long ago.

DP NASA Pluto and Charon GIF

Locked into a gravitational dance, like “two ice skaters holding hands,” Pluto and Charon orbit around each other and common point of their centers of mass; each with the same face permanently turned toward the other. Four more and much smaller moons, Hydra, Nix, Styx and Kerberos, irregularly shaped bodies ranging in size from about 6 to 28 miles across, also orbit Pluto, itself measuring about 715 miles across, and Charon, 375 miles in diameter.

Even the way the Pluto got its name also is a great story. A very bright and well-read 11-year old named Venetia Burney of Oxford, England named the planet, in large measure thanks to her teacher’s emphasis on reading. And she did so before there was a Disney dog by the same name.


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, 2015 and downlinked to Earth the following day. It is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach. These and and all the other images, except as noted, are courtesy of NASA, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute.


Today, New Horizons speeds toward its next destination, a Kuiper Belt Object named 2014 MU69. The probe is expected to zoom past the 45-mile wide body, orbiting about a billion miles further from the sun than Pluto, in January 2019. If all goes as planned, humanity will enjoy a glimpse at a celestial body largely untouched since the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

These are amazing times for those who enjoy astronomy and space exploration. Paperless Lion is counting the days to New Horizons’ next encounter!


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