By the end of this week, all the data gathered by the New Horizons spacecraft during its July 2015 flyby of the Pluto system will have finished downloading to Earth and be in the hands of the science team. Bonnie Buratti, a science team co-investigator said they have gone from being able to look at the pretty pictures to doing the hard work required to study the data. During today’s press briefing from the Division of Planetary Sciences conference, the New Horizons team shared a few interesting and curious findings they’ve found in the data so far.
While the famous global view of Pluto appears to show a cloud-free dwarf planet, Principal investigator Alan Stern said the team has now take a closer look and found handful of potential clouds in images taken with New Horizons’ cameras.
“Clouds are common in the atmospheres of the solar system,” Stern said during the briefing, “ and a natural question was whether Pluto, with a nitrogen atmosphere, has any clouds.”
Stern said they’ve known since flyby that Pluto has haze layers, as seen in the backlit lead image above, as New Horizons flew away from Pluto. “They stretch more than 200 km into the sky, and we’ve counted over two dozen concentric layers,” he said.
While hazes are not clouds, Stern said they have identified candidates for clouds in high-phase images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera.
“The seven candidates are all similar in that they are very low altitude,” Stern said, and they are all low-lying, isolated small features, so no broad cloud decks or fields. When we map them over the surface, they all lie near the terminator, so they occur near dawn or dusk. This is all suggestive they are clouds because low-lying regions and dawn or dusk provide cooler conditions where clouds may occur.”
Stern told Universe Today that these possible, rare condensation clouds could be made of ethane, acetylene, hydrogen cyanide or methane under the right conditions. Stern added these clouds are probably short-lived phenomena – again, likely occurring only at dawn or dusk. A day on Pluto is 6.4 days on Earth.
“But if there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” Stern said.
Disappointingly, the New Horizons team has no way of confirming if these are clouds or not. “None of them can be confirmed as clouds because they are very low lying and we don’t have stereo images to tell us more,” Stern said, adding that the only way to confirm if there are condensation clouds on Pluto would be to return with an orbiter mission.
Landslides on Charon
While Pluto shows many kinds of activity, one surface process scientists haven’t seen on the dwarf planet is landslides. Surprisingly, though, they have been spotted on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.
“We’ve seen similar landslides on other rocky and icy planets, such as Mars and Saturn’s moon Iapetus, but these are the first landslides we’ve seen this far from the sun, in the Kuiper Belt,” said Ross Beyer, a science team researcher from Sagan Center at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center, California. “The big question is will they be detected elsewhere in the Kuiper Belt?”
Long runout landslides seen on Charon’s Serenity Chasm shows a 200-meter thick lobate landslide that runs up against a 6 km high ridge.
“With our images, we can just resolve a smooth apron and the deposit as a whole,” said Beyer, “we can’t see individual grains. But given the cold conditions on Charon, the deposit likely made of boulders of ice and rock.”
Beyer said earthquakes or an impact could have jump started the landslide on regions that were ready to slide. “The boulders may have melted and the edges and got slippery enough to begin to slide down the slope,” he said.
The images of Serenity Chasma were taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 48,912 miles (78,717 kilometers).
Beyer added that while Pluto doesn’t have landslides, it does have material that appears to be moving downhill as rock falls and glacier-like flows.
Bright and active
New Horizons data shows that portions of Pluto’s large heart-shaped region, Sputnik Planitia, are among the most reflective in the solar system. “That brightness indicates surface activity,” said Buratti, “similar to how Saturn’s moon Enceladus is very reflective, about 100% reflective, and is very active with plumes and geysers. Because we see a pattern of high surface reflectivity equating to activity, we can infer that the dwarf planet Eris, which is known to be highly reflective, is also likely to be active.”
New Horizons is now making a beeline for its next target, KBO 2014 MU69. Cameras on the New Horizons spacecraft have been taking long range images and MU69 is the smallest KBO to have its color measured: it has a reddish tint. Scientists have used that data to confirm this object is part of the so-called cold classical region of the Kuiper Belt, which is believed to contain some of the oldest, most prehistoric material in the solar system.
“The reddish color tells us the type of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 is,” said Amanda Zangari, a New Horizons post-doctoral researcher from Southwest Research Institute. “The data confirms that on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.”
Zangari added that they will be using the Hubble Space Telescope to better understand MU69.
“We would like to use Hubble to its find rotation rate and better understand its shape, as far as planning,” she said. “We would like to know ahead of time, if it is oblong, we would like to fly when the longest point is facing the telescope.”
Several times during the briefing, Stern indicated how having a future mission that orbited Pluto would answer so many outstanding questions the team has. He outlined one potential mission that is in the very earliest stages of study where a spacecraft could be launched on NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) and the spacecraft could have an RTG-powered ion engine that would allow a fast-moving spacecraft the ability to slow down and go into orbit (unlike New Horizons). This type of architecture would allow for a flight time of 7.5 years to Pluto, quicker than New Horizons’ nearly 9.5 years.