NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Nears Historic July 14 Encounter with Pluto – April 14, 2015
Scientia — NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is three months from returning to humanity the first-ever close up images and scientific observations of distant Pluto and its system of large and small moons.
“Scientific literature is filled with papers on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from ground based and Earth orbiting space observations, but we’ve never studied Pluto up close and personal,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut, and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries.”
The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons has traveled a longer time and farther away – more than nine years and three billion miles – than any space mission in history to reach its primary target. Its flyby of Pluto and its system of at least five moons on July 14 will complete the initial reconnaissance of the classical solar system. This mission also opens the door to an entirely new “third” zone of mysterious small planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt, a large area with numerous objects beyond Neptune’s orbit.
The flyby caps a five-decade-long era of reconnaissance that began with Venus and Mars in the early 1960s, and continued through first looks at Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s and Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.
Reaching this third zone of our solar system – beyond the inner, rocky planets and outer gas giants – has been a space science priority for years. In the early 2000s the National Academy of Sciences ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – and particularly Pluto and its largest moon, Charon – as its top priority planetary mission for the coming decade.
New Horizons – a compact, lightweight, powerfully equipped probe packing the most advanced suite of cameras and spectrometers ever sent on a first reconnaissance mission – is NASA’s answer to that call.
“This is pure exploration; we’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “New Horizons is flying to Pluto – the biggest, brightest and most complex of the dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. This 21st century encounter is going to be an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s.”
Pluto, the largest known body in the Kuiper Belt, offers a nitrogen atmosphere, complex seasons, distinct surface markings, an ice-rock interior that may harbor an ocean, and at least five moons. Among these moons, the largest – Charon – may itself sport an atmosphere or an interior ocean, and possibly even evidence of recent surface activity.
“There’s no doubt, Charon is a rising star in terms of scientific interest, and we can’t wait to reveal it in detail in July,” said Leslie Young, deputy project scientist at SwRI.
Pluto’s smaller moons also are likely to present scientific opportunities. When New Horizons was started in 2001, it was a mission to just Pluto and Charon, before the four smaller moons were discovered.
The spacecraft’s suite of seven science instruments – which includes cameras, spectrometers, and plasma and dust detectors – will map the geology of Pluto and Charon and map their surface compositions and temperatures; examine Pluto’s atmosphere, and search for an atmosphere around Charon; study Pluto’s smaller satellites; and look for rings and additional satellites around Pluto.
Currently, even with New Horizons closer to Pluto than the Earth is to the Sun, the Pluto system resembles little more than bright dots in the distance. But teams operating the spacecraft are using these views to refine their knowledge of Pluto’s location, and skillfully navigate New Horizons toward a precise target point 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) from Pluto’s surface. That targeting is critical, since the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point its science instruments are based on knowing the exact time and location that New Horizons passes Pluto.
“Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we know we have just one shot to make this work,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, which built and operates the spacecraft. “We’ve plotted out each step of the Pluto encounter, practiced it over and over, and we’re excited the ‘real deal’ is finally here.”
The spacecraft’s work doesn’t end with the July flyby. Because it gets one shot at its target, New Horizons is designed to gather as much data as it can, as quickly as it can, taking about 100 times as much data on close approach as it can send home before flying away. And although the spacecraft will send select, high-priority datasets home in the days just before and after close approach, the mission will continue returning the data stored in onboard memory for a full 16 months.
“New Horizons is one of the great explorations of our time,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver at APL. “There’s so much we don’t know, not just about Pluto, but other worlds like it. We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch.”
NASA’s New Horizons: Increasing Variety on Pluto’s Close Approach Hemisphere, and a ‘Dark Pole’ on Charon – June 22, 2015
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft doesn’t pass Pluto until July 14 – but the mission team is making new discoveries as the piano-sized probe bears down on the Pluto system.
In a long series of images obtained by New Horizons’ telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) May 29-June 19, Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, appear to more than double in size. From this rapidly improving imagery, scientists on the New Horizons team have found that the “close approach hemisphere” on Pluto that New Horizons will fly over has the greatest variety of terrain types seen on the planet so far. They have also discovered that Charon has a “dark pole” – a mysterious dark region that forms a kind of anti-polar cap.
“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?”
New Horizons scientists use a technique called deconvolution to sharpen the raw, unprocessed pictures that the spacecraft beams back to Earth; the contrast in these latest images has also been stretched to bring out additional details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce artifacts, so the team will be carefully reviewing newer images taken from closer range to determine whether some of the tantalizing details seen in these images persist. Pluto’s non-spherical appearance in these images is not real; it results from a combination of the image-processing technique and Pluto’s large variations in surface brightness.
“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 summer sun.”
New Horizons is approximately 2.9 billion miles (4.7 billion kilometers) from Earth and just 16 million miles (25 million kilometers) from Pluto. The spacecraft and payload are in good health and operating normally.
One Million Miles to Go; Pluto is More Intriguing than Ever – July 13, 2015
As NASA’s unmanned New Horizons spacecraft speeds closer to a historic July 14 Pluto flyby, it’s continuing to multi-task, producing images of an icy world that’s growing more fascinating and complex every day.
On July 11, 2015, New Horizons captured this image, which suggests some new features that are of keen interest to the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team now assembled at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. Just starting to rotate into view on the left side of the image is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach.
The New Horizons spacecraft is now approaching a milestone – only one million miles to Pluto – which will occur at 11:23 p.m. EDT tonight, Sunday, July 12. It’s approaching Pluto after a more than nine-year, three-billion mile journey. At 7:49 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 14 the unmanned spacecraft will zip past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission will complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.
Pluto is Dominated by the Feature Informally Named the “Heart” – July 14, 2015
The Icy Mountains of Pluto – July 15, 2015
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.
The mountains likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system — and may still be in the process of building, says Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team leader Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.. That suggests the close-up region, which covers less than one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.
Moore and his colleagues base the youthful age estimate on the lack of craters in this scene. Like the rest of Pluto, this region would presumably have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered — unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks.
“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” says Moore.
Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.
“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.
The mountains are probably composed of Pluto’s water-ice “bedrock.”
Although methane and nitrogen ice covers much of the surface of Pluto, these materials are not strong enough to build the mountains. Instead, a stiffer material, most likely water-ice, created the peaks. “At Pluto’s temperatures, water-ice behaves more like rock,” said deputy GGI lead Bill McKinnon of Washington University, St. Louis.
The close-up image was taken about 1.5 hours before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 47,800 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet. The image easily resolves structures smaller than a mile across.
New Horizons Captures Two of Pluto’s Smaller Moons – July 21, 2015
Pluto’s moon Nix (left), shown here in enhanced color as imaged by the New Horizons Ralph instrument, has a reddish spot that has attracted the interest of mission scientists. The data were obtained on the morning of July 14, 2015, and received on the ground on July 18. At the time the observations were taken New Horizons was about 102,000 miles (165,000 km) from Nix. The image shows features as small as approximately 2 miles (3 kilometers) across on Nix, which is estimated to be 26 miles (42 kilometers) long and 22 miles (36 kilometers) wide.
Pluto’s small, irregularly shaped moon Hydra (right) is revealed in this black and white image taken from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument on July 14, 2015, from a distance of about 143,000 miles (231,000 kilometers). Features as small as 0.7 miles (1.2 kilometers) are visible on Hydra, which measures 34 miles (55 kilometers) in length.
While Pluto’s largest moon Charon has grabbed most of the lunar spotlight so far, these two smaller and lesser-known satellites are now getting some attention. Nix and Hydra – the second and third moons to be discovered – are approximately the same size, but their similarity ends there.
New Horizons’ first color image of Pluto’s moon Nix, in which colors have been enhanced, reveals an intriguing region on the jelly bean-shaped satellite, which is estimated to be 26 miles (42 kilometers) long and 22 miles (36 kilometers) wide.
Although the overall surface color of Nix is neutral grey in the image, the newfound region has a distinct red tint. Hints of a bull’s-eye pattern lead scientists to speculate that the reddish region is a crater. “Additional compositional data has already been taken of Nix, but is not yet downlinked. It will tell us why this region is redder than its surroundings,” said mission scientist Carly Howett, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. She added, “This observation is so tantalizing, I’m finding it hard to be patient for more Nix data to be downlinked.”
Meanwhile, the sharpest image yet received from New Horizons of Pluto’s satellite Hydra shows that its irregular shape resembles the state of Michigan. The new image was made by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 143,000 miles (231,000 kilometers), and shows features as small as 0.7 miles (1.2 kilometers) across. There appear to be at least two large craters, one of which is mostly in shadow. The upper portion looks darker than the rest of Hydra, suggesting a possible difference in surface composition. From this image, mission scientists have estimated that Hydra is 34 miles (55 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide. Commented mission science collaborator Ted Stryk of Roane State Community College in Tennessee, “Before last week, Hydra was just a faint point of light, so it’s a surreal experience to see it become an actual place, as we see its shape and spot recognizable features on its surface for the first time.”
Images of Pluto’s most recently discovered moons, Styx and Kerberos, are expected to be transmitted to Earth no later than mid-October.
Nix and Hydra were both discovered in 2005 using Hubble Space Telescope data by a research team led by New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland. New Horizons’ findings on the surface characteristics and other properties of Nix and Hydra will help scientists understand the origins and subsequent history of Pluto and its moons.
NASA’s New Horizons Finds Second Mountain Range in Pluto’s ‘Heart’ – July 21, 2015
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 sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.
Pluto’s icy mountains have company. NASA’s New Horizons mission has discovered a new, apparently less lofty mountain range on the lower-left edge of Pluto’s best known feature, the bright, heart-shaped region named Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region).
These newly-discovered frozen peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile (1-1.5 kilometers) high, about the same height as the United States’ Appalachian Mountains. The Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) discovered by New Horizons on July 15 more closely approximate the height of the taller Rocky Mountains.
The new range is just west of the region within Pluto’s heart called Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain). The peaks lie some 68 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Norgay Montes.
This newest image further illustrates the remarkably well-defined topography along the western edge of Tombaugh Regio.
“There is a pronounced difference in texture between the younger, frozen plains to the east and the dark, heavily-cratered terrain to the west,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “There’s a complex interaction going on between the bright and the dark materials that we’re still trying to understand.”
While Sputnik Planum is believed to be relatively young in geological terms – perhaps less than 100 million years old – the darker region probably dates back billions of years. Moore notes that the bright, sediment-like material appears to be filling in old craters (for example, the bright circular feature to the lower left of center).
This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The names of features on Pluto have all been given on an informal basis by the New Horizons team.
Pluto Dazzles in False Color – July 23, 2015
Videos of the Journey to Pluto from NASA
Views of Pluto From New Horizons’ Approach
Mountains on Pluto
Animated Flyover of Pluto’s Icy Mountain and Plains
Journey to Pluto Galary
– Credit and Resource –
A massive thank you to NASA for this awesome adventure. The people of planet Earth salute you 🙂