Dwarf Planet Haumea Has a Ring

A unique opportunity to study the dwarf planet Haumea has led to an intriguing discovery: Haumea is surrounded by a ring.

Add this to the already long list of unique things about the weird-shaped world with a dizzying rotation and a controversial discovery.

On January 21, 2017 Haumea passed in front of a distant star, in an event known as an occultation. The background star can – pardon the pun – shine a light on the object passing in front, providing information about a distant object — such as size, shape, and density — that is otherwise difficult to obtain. Since an occultation with Haumea had never been observed before, scientists were first eager, and then surprised.

“One of the most interesting and unexpected findings was the discovery of a ring around Haumea,” said said Pablo Santos-Sanz, from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) in a statement.

This is the first time a ring has been discovered around a trans-neptunian object, and the team said this discovery shows that the presence of rings could be much more common than was previously thought, in our Solar System as well as in other planetary systems.

“Twelve telescopes from ten different European observatories converged on the phenomenon,” said José Luis Ortiz, who led the observational effort, and is also from IAA-CSIC. “This deployment of technical means allowed us to reconstruct with a very high precision the shape and size of dwarf planet Haumea, and discover to our surprise that it is considerably bigger and less reflecting than was previously believed. It is also much less dense than previously thought, which answered questions that had been pending about the object.”

The team said their data shows that the egg-shaped Haumea measures 2,320 kilometers in its largest axis. Previous estimates from various observations put the size at roughly 1,400 km. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea rotate around its axis, much less than any other body in the Solar System that measures more than a hundred kilometers long. This rotational speed likely caused Haumea to flatten out, giving it an ellipsoid shape. It orbits the Sun in an elliptical loop that takes 284 years to complete. Additionally Haumea has two small moons.

Artist’s impression of the dwarf planet Haumea and its moons, Hi’aka and Namaka. Credit: NASA

Ortiz and team say their data shows the newly discovered ring lies on the equatorial plane of the dwarf planet, and it “displays a 3:1 resonance with respect to the rotation of Haumea, which means that the frozen particles which compose the ring rotate three times slower around the planet than it rotates around its own axis.”

Ortiz says there might be a few possible explanations for the formation of the ring; it may have originated in a collision with another object, or in the dispersal of surface material due to the planet’s high rotational speed.

Of course, other objects in our Solar System have rings: all the giant planets have rings, with Saturn’s being the most massive and well know. But small centaur asteroids located between Jupiter and Neptune were found to have rings, too.
“Now we have discovered that bodies even farther away than the centaurs, bigger and with very different general characteristics, can also have rings,” said Santos-Sanz.

You may recall there was great controversy over the discovery of Haumea. The discovery was originally announced in 2005 by Mike Brown from Caltech, along with his colleagues Chad Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and David Rabinowitz, of Yale University.

But then Ortiz and Santos-Sanz attempted to scoop Brown et. al by sending in their claim to discovery to the Minor Planet Center before Brown’s paper was published. It was later learned that Ortiz and colleagues had accessed the Caltech observing logs remotely, looking at when and where Brown was looking with his telescopes. Ortiz and team initially denied the claims, but later conceded accessing the observation logs, maintaining they were just verifying whether they had discovered a new object in observations from 2003.

I asked Brown today if anything was ever officially resolved about the controversy.

“I think the resolution is that it is generally accepted that they stole our positions, but no one wants to think about it anymore,” he said via email.

But the discovery of a ring Haumea, Brown said, looks solid.

“I will admit to being wary of anything Ortiz says, so I checked the data very carefully,” Brown said. “Even I have to agree that the detection looks pretty solid. Haumea is weird, so it’s less surprising than, say, finding rings around something like Makemake. But, still, this was not something I was expecting!”

Sources: IAA-CSIC, Nature, email exchange with Brown.

Phenomenal New View of Ceres ‘Lonely Mountain’ Reveals Signs of Volcanic Activity

A lonely 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain on Ceres is likely volcanic in origin, and the dwarf planet may have a weak, temporary atmosphere. These are just two of many new insights about Ceres from NASA's Dawn mission published this week in six papers in the journal Science. "Dawn has revealed that Ceres is a diverse world that clearly had geological activity in its recent past," said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Temporary Atmosphere A surprising finding emerged in the paper led by Russell: Dawn may have detected a weak, temporary atmosphere. Dawn's gamma ray and neutron (GRaND) detector observed evidence that Ceres had accelerated electrons from the solar wind to very high energies over a period of about six days. In theory, the interaction between the solar wind's energetic particles and atmospheric molecules could explain the GRaND observations. A temporary atmosphere would be consistent with the water vapor the Herschel Space Observatory detected at Ceres in 2012-2013. The electrons that GRaND detected could have been produced by the solar wind hitting the water molecules that Herschel observed, but scientists are also looking into alternative explanations. "We're very excited to follow up on this and the other discoveries about this fascinating world," Russell said. Ahuna Mons as a Cryovolcano Ahuna Mons is a volcanic dome unlike any seen elsewhere in the solar system, according to a new analysis led by Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Universities Space Research Association. Ruesch and colleagues studied formation models of volcanic domes, 3-D terrain maps and images from Dawn, as well as analogous geological features elsewhere in our solar system. This led to the conclusion that the lonely mountain is likely volcanic in nature. Specifically, it would be a cryovolcano -- a volcano that erupts a liquid made of volatiles such as water, instead of silicates. "This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past," Ruesch said. For more details on this study, see: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/ceres-cryo-volcano Ceres: Between a Rocky and Icy Place While Ahuna Mons may have erupted liquid water in the past, Dawn has detected water in the present, as described in a study led by Jean-Philippe Combe of the Bear Fight Institute, Winthrop, Washington. Combe and colleagues used Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) to detect probable water ice at Oxo Crater, a small, bright, sloped depression at mid-latitudes on Ceres. Exposed water-ice is rare on Ceres, but the low density of Ceres, the impact-generated flows and the very existence of Ahuna Mons suggest that Ceres' crust does contain a significant component of water-ice. This is consistent with a study of Ceres' diverse geological features led by Harald Hiesinger of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. The diversity of geological features on Ceres is further explored in a study led by Debra Buczkowski of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland. Impact craters are clearly the most abundant geological feature on Ceres, and their different shapes help tell the intricate story of Ceres' past. Craters that are roughly polygonal -- that is, shapes bounded by straight lines -- hint that Ceres' crust is heavily fractured. In addition, several Cerean craters have patterns of visible fractures on their floors. Some, like tiny Oxo, have terraces, while others, such as the large Urvara Crater (106 miles, 170 kilometers wide), have central peaks. There are craters with flow-like features, and craters that imprint on other craters, as well as chains of small craters. Bright areas are peppered across Ceres, with the most reflective ones in Occator Crater. Some crater shapes could indicate water-ice in the subsurface. The dwarf planet's various crater forms are consistent with an outer shell for Ceres that is not purely ice or rock, but rather a mixture of both -- a conclusion reflected in other analyses. Scientists also calculated the ratio of various craters' depths to diameters, and found that some amount of crater relaxation must have occurred. Additionally, there are more craters in the northern hemisphere of Ceres than the south, where the large Urvara and Yalode craters are the dominant features. "The uneven distribution of craters indicates that the crust is not uniform, and that Ceres has gone through a complex geological evolution," Hiesinger said. Distribution of Surface Materials What are the rocky materials in Ceres' crust? A study led by Eleonora Ammannito of the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that clay-forming minerals called phyllosilicates are all over Ceres. These phyllosilicates are rich in magnesium and also have some ammonium embedded in their crystalline structure. Their distribution throughout the dwarf planet's crust indicates Ceres' surface material has been altered by a global process involving water. Although Ceres' phyllosilicates are uniform in their composition, there are marked differences in how abundant these materials are on the surface. For example, phyllosilicates are especially prevalent in the region around the smooth, "pancake"-like crater Kerwan (174 miles, 280 kilometers in diameter), and less so at Yalode Crater (162 miles, 260 kilometers in diameter), which has areas of both smooth and rugged terrain around it. Since Kerwan and Yalode are similar in size, this may mean that the composition of the material into which they impacted may be different. Craters Dantu and Haulani both formed recently in geologic time, but also seem to differ in composition. "In comparing craters such as Dantu and Haulani, we find that their different material mixtures could extend beneath the surface for miles, or even tens of miles in the case of the larger Dantu," Ammannito said. Looking Higher Now in its extended mission, the Dawn spacecraft has delivered a wealth of images and other data from its current perch at 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres' surface, which is closer to the dwarf planet than the International Space Station is to Earth. The spacecraft will be increasing its altitude at Ceres on Sept. 2, as scientists consider questions that can be examined from higher up. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Whoa – what a sight! Ceres’ lonely mountain, Ahuna Mons, is seen in this simulated perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA’s Dawn mission in August from an altitude of 240 miles (385 km) in August 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

An isolated 3-mile-high (5 km) mountain Ahuna Mons on Ceres is likely volcanic in origin, and the dwarf planet may have a weak, temporary atmosphere. These are just two of many new insights about Ceres from NASA’s Dawn mission published this week in six papers in the journal Science.

Ceres' mysterious mountain Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. On its steepest side, this mountain is about 3 miles (5 kilometers) high. Its average overall height is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). The diameter of the mountain is about 12 miles (20 kilometers). Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit, 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface, in December 2015. Credits: NASA/JPL/Dawn mission
Ahuna Mons is seen in this mosaic of images from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. On its steepest side, this mountain is about 3 miles (5 km) high. Its average overall height is 2.5 miles (4 km). The diameter of the mountain is about 12 miles (20 km). Dawn took these images from its low-altitude mapping orbit, 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface, in December 2015.
Credits: NASA/JPL/Dawn mission

“Dawn has revealed that Ceres is a diverse world that clearly had geological activity in its recent past,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator of the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Ahuna Mons dome compared to a dome in Russia. The similarity in appearance is striking though the difference in size is large. Credit: NASA
The Ahuna Mons dome compared to a dome in Russia. The similarity in appearance is striking though the difference in size is large. Credit: NASA

Ahuna Mons is a volcanic dome similar to earthly and lunar volcanic domes but unique in the solar system, according to a new analysis led by Ottaviano Ruesch of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Universities Space Research Association. While those on Earth erupt with molten rock, Ceres’ grandest peak likely formed as a salty-mud volcano. Instead of molten rock, salty-mud volcanoes, or “cryovolcanoes,” release frigid, salty water sometimes mixed with mud.


Learn more about Ahuna Mons

“This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past,” Ruesch said. Estimates place the mountain formation within the past billion years.

Dawn may also have detected a weak, temporary atmosphere; the probe’s gamma ray and neutron (GRaND) detector observed evidence that Ceres had accelerated electrons from the solar wind to very high energies over a period of about six days. In theory, the interaction between the solar wind’s energetic particles and atmospheric molecules could explain the GRaND observations.

Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel space observatory between 2011 and 2013 find that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapour atmosphere. It is the first unambiguous detection of water vapour around an object in the asteroid belt. The inset shows the water absorption signal detected by Herschel on 11 October 2012. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab/Küppers et al.
Dwarf planet Ceres is located in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Observations by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory between 2011 and 2013 found that the dwarf planet has a thin water-vapor atmosphere, the first detection ever of water vapor around an asteroid in the asteroid belt. Copyright ESA/ATG medialab/Küppers et al.

A temporary atmosphere would confirm the water vapor the Herschel Space Observatory detected at Ceres in 2012-2013. The electrons that GRaND detected could have been produced by the solar wind hitting the water molecules that Herschel observed, but scientists are also looking into alternative explanations.

While Ahuna Mons may have erupted liquid water in the not-too-distant past, Dawn found probable water ice right now in the mid-latitude Oxo Crater using its visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR).

The small, bright crater Oxo (6 miles, 10 kilometers wide) on Ceres is seen in this perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA's Dawn mission. Dawn's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) has found evidence of water ice at this crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The small, bright crater Oxo (6 miles / 10 km wide) on Ceres is seen in this perspective view. The elevation has been exaggerated by a factor of two. The view was made using enhanced-color images from NASA’s Dawn mission. Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) has found evidence of water ice at this crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Exposed water-ice is rare on the dwarf planet, but the low density of Ceres — 2.08 grams/cm3 vs. 5.5 for Earth — the impact-generated ice detection and the the existence of Ahuna Mons suggest that Ceres’ crust does contain a significant amount of water ice.

Impact craters are clearly the most abundant geological feature on Ceres, and their different shapes help tell the complex story of Ceres’ past. Craters that are roughly polygonal — shapes bounded by straight lines — hint that Ceres’ crust is heavily fractured. In addition, several Cerean craters display fractures on their floors. There are craters with flow-like features. Bright areas are peppered across Ceres, with the most reflective ones in Occator Crater. Some crater shapes could indicate water-ice in the subsurface.

In this illustration, a mud slurry rises up through Ceres' crust to build a dome such as Ahuna Mons. Credit: Goddard Media Studios
In this illustration, a mud slurry rises up through Ceres’ crust to build a dome like Ahuna Mons. Click to see the animation. Credit: Goddard Media Studios

All these crater forms imply an outer shell for Ceres that is not purely ice or rock, but rather a mixture of both. Scientists also calculated the ratio of various craters’ depths to diameters, and found that some amount of crater relaxation must have occurred as icy walls gradually slump.

“The uneven distribution of craters indicates that the crust is not uniform, and that Ceres has gone through a complex geological evolution,” Hiesinger said.

The rim of Hamori Crater on Ceres is seen in the upper right portion of this image, which was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft. Hamori is located in the southern hemisphere of Ceres and measures 37 miles (60 kilometers) wide. Researchers named Hamori for a Japanese god said to protect the leaves of trees.
The rim of Hamori Crater on Ceres is seen in the upper left portion of this image, which was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Clay is found at many locations on the dwarf planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Ceres’ crust also appears loaded with clay-forming minerals called phyllosilicates. These phyllosilicates are rich in magnesium and also have some ammonium embedded in their crystalline structure. Their distribution throughout the dwarf planet’s crust indicates Ceres’ surface material has been altered by a global process involving water.

Now in its extended mission, the Dawn spacecraft has been increasing its altitude since Sept. 2 as scientists stand back once again for a broader look at Ceres under different lighting conditions now compared to earlier in the mission.

New Dwarf Planet Discovered Beyond Neptune

2015 RR245's orbit takes it 120 times further from the Sun than the Earth is. Image: OSSOS/Alex Parker

A new dwarf planet has been discovered beyond Neptune, in the disk of small icy worlds that resides there. The planet was discovered by an international team of astronomers as part of the Outer Solar Systems Origins Survey (OSSOS). The instrument that found it was the Canada-France Hawaii Telescope at Maunakea, Hawaii.

The planet is about 700 km in size, and has been given the name 2015 RR245. It was first sighted by Dr. JJ Kavelaars, of the National Research Council of Canada, in images taken in 2015. Dwarf planets are notoriously difficult to spot, but they’re important pieces of the puzzle in tracing the evolution of our Solar System.

Dr. Michele Bannister, of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, describes the moment when the planet was discovered: “There it was on the screen— this dot of light moving so slowly that it had to be at least twice as far as Neptune from the Sun.”

These images show 3 hours of RR245's movement. Image: OSSOS
These images show 3 hours of RR245’s movement. Image: OSSOS

“The icy worlds beyond Neptune trace how the giant planets formed and then moved out from the Sun. They let us piece together the history of our Solar System. But almost all of these icy worlds are painfully small and faint: it’s really exciting to find one that’s large and bright enough that we can study it in detail.” said Bannister.

As the New Horizons mission has shown us, these far-flung, cold bodies can have exotic features in their geological landscapes. Where once Pluto, king of the dwarf planets, was thought to be a frozen body locked in time, New Horizons revealed it to be a much more dynamic place. The same may be true of RR245, but for now, not much is known about it.

The 700 km size number is really just a guess at this point. More measurements will need to be taken of its surface properties to verify its size. “It’s either small and shiny, or large and dull.” said Bannister.

As our Solar System evolved, most dwarf planets like RR245 were destroyed in collisions, or else flung out into deep space by gravitational interactions as the gas giants migrated to their current positions. RR245 is one of the few that have survived. It now spends its time the same way other dwarf planets like Pluto and Eris do, among the tens of thousands of small bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.

RR245 has not been observed for long, so much of what’s known about its orbit will be refined by further observation. But at this point it appears to have a 700 year orbit around the Sun. And it looks like for at least the last 100 million years it has travelled its current, highly elliptical orbit. For hundreds of years, it has been further than 12 billion km (80 AU)from the Sun, but by 2096 it should come within 5 billion km (34 AU) of the Sun.

The discovery of RR 245 came as a bit of a surprise to the OSSOS team, as that’s not their primary role. “OSSOS was designed to map the orbital structure of the outer Solar System to decipher its history,” said Prof. Brett Gladman of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “While not designed to efficiently detect dwarf planets, we’re delighted to have found one on such an interesting orbit”.

OSSOS has discovered over 500 hundred trans-Neptunian objects, but this is the first dwarf planet it’s found. “OSSOS is only possible due to the exceptional observing capabilities of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. CFHT is located at one of the best optical observing locations on Earth, is equipped with an enormous wide-field imager, and can quickly adapt its observing each night to new discoveries we make. This facility is truly world leading.” said Gladman.

If RR 245's diameter is conclusively measured as 700 km, it will be smaller than the dwarf planet Ceres, which is 945 km in diameter.  Image courtesy of NASA.
If RR 245’s diameter is conclusively measured as 700 km, it will be smaller than the dwarf planet Ceres, which is 945 km in diameter. Image courtesy of NASA.

A lot of work has been done to find dwarf planets in the far reaches of our Solar System. It may be that RR 245 is the last one we find. If there are any more out there, they may have to wait until larger and more powerful telescopes become available. In the mid-2020’s, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will come on-line in Chile. That ‘scope features a 3200 megapixel camera, and each image it captures will be the size of 40 full Moons. It’ll be hard for any remaining dwarf planets to hide from that kind of imaging power.

As for RR 245’s rather uninspiring name, it will have to do for a while. But as the discoverers of the new dwarf planet, the OSSOS team will get to submit their preferred name for the planet. After that, it’s up the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to settle on one.

What do you think? If this is indeed the last dwarf planet to be found in our Solar System what should we call it?

NASA Approves New Horizons Extended KBO Mission, Keeps Dawn at Ceres

New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.
New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.

In an ‘Independence Day’ gift to a slew of US planetary research scientists, NASA has granted approval to nine ongoing missions to continue for another two years this holiday weekend.

The biggest news is that NASA green lighted a mission extension for the New Horizons probe to fly deeper into the Kuiper Belt and decided to keep the Dawn probe at Ceres forever, rather than dispatching it to a record breaking third main belt asteroid.

And the exciting extension news comes just as the agency’s Juno probe is about to ignite a do or die July 4 fireworks display to achieve orbit at Jupiter – detailed here.

“Mission approved!” the researchers gleefully reported on the probes Facebook and Twitter social media pages.

“Our extended mission into the #KuiperBelt has been approved. Thanks to everyone for following along & hopefully the best is yet to come.

Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in this false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials.  The image is centered on Ceres brightest spots at Occator crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
Dwarf planet Ceres is shown in this false-color renderings, which highlight differences in surface materials. The image is centered on Ceres brightest spots at Occator crater. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The New Horizons spacecraft will now continue on course in the Kuiper Belt towards an small object known as 2014 MU69, to carry out the most distant close encounter with a celestial object in human history.

“Here’s to continued success!”

The spacecraft will rendezvous with the ancient rock on New Year’s Day 2019.

Researchers say that 2014 MU69 is considered as one of the early building blocks of the solar system and as such will be invaluable to scientists studying the origin of our solar system how it evolved.

It was almost exactly one year ago on July 14, 2015 that New Horizons conducted Earth’s first ever up close flyby and science reconnaissance of Pluto – the most distant planet in our solar system and the last of the nine planets to be explored.

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The immense volume of data gathered continues to stream back to Earth every day.

“The New Horizons mission to Pluto exceeded our expectations and even today the data from the spacecraft continue to surprise,” said NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Jim Green at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C.

“We’re excited to continue onward into the dark depths of the outer solar system to a science target that wasn’t even discovered when the spacecraft launched.”

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

While waiting for news on whether NASA would approve an extended mission, the New Horizons engineering and science team already ignited the main engine four times to carry out four course changes in October and November 2015, in order to preserve the option of the flyby past 2014 MU69 on Jan 1, 2019.

Green noted that mission extensions into fiscal years 2017 and 2018 are not final until Congress actually passes sufficient appropriation to fund NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

“Final decisions on mission extensions are contingent on the outcome of the annual budget process.”

Tough choices were made even tougher because the Obama Administration has cut funding for the Planetary Sciences Division – some of which was restored by a bipartisan majority in Congress for what many consider NASA’s ‘crown jewels.’

NASA’s Dawn asteroid orbiter just completed its primary mission at dwarf planet Ceres on June 30, just in time for the global celebration known as Asteroid Day.

“The mission exceeded all expectations originally set for its exploration of protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres,” said NASA officials.

The Dawn science team had recently submitted a proposal to break out of orbit around the middle of this month in order to this conduct a flyby of the main belt asteroid Adeona.

Green declined to approve the Dawn proposal, citing additional valuable science to be gathered at Ceres.

The long-term monitoring of Ceres, particularly as it gets closer to perihelion – the part of its orbit with the shortest distance to the sun — has the potential to provide more significant science discoveries than a flyby of Adeona,” he said.

The funding required for a multi-year mission to Adeona would be difficult in these cost constrained times.

However the spacecraft is in excellent shape and the trio of science instruments are in excellent health.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, 2015 and has been conducting unprecedented investigation ever since.

Dawn is Earth’s first probe in human history to explore any dwarf planet, the first to explore Ceres up close and the first to orbit two celestial bodies.

The asteroid Vesta was Dawn’s first orbital target where it conducted extensive observations of the bizarre world for over a year in 2011 and 2012.

The mission is expected to last until at least later into 2016, and possibly longer, depending upon fuel reserves.

Due to expert engineering and handling by the Dawn mission team, the probe unexpectedly has hydrazine maneuvering fuel leftover.

Dawn will remain at its current altitude at the Low Altitude Mapping Orbit (LAMO) for the rest of its mission, and indefinitely afterward, even when no further communications are possible.

Green based his decision on the mission extensions on the biannual peer review scientific assessment by the Senior Review Panel.

Dawn was launched in September 2007.

The other mission extensions – contingent on available resources – are: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN), the Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers, the Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Haumean Moons Deepen The Dwarf Planet Mystery

This image shows the moons of our Solar System's four icy dwarf planets. Pluto and Haumea have been considered as cousin planets because it's thought that their moons were formed in collisions. A new study focussed on Haumea's moons raises some interesting questions. Image: D. Ragozzine (FIT)/NASA/JHU/SwRI

The dwarf planets in our Solar System are some of the most interesting objects around. Of course, all of the Solar System objects–and anything in nature, really–are fascinating when you really focus on them. Now, a new study puts the focus squarely on the dwarf planet Haumea, and deepens the mystery surrounding its origins.

Dwarf planets Pluto and Haumea are considered cousins. Both of them, and their respective moons, are thought to be collisional families. This means they have a common origin in the form of an impact event. But the study, from Luke D. Burkhart, Darin Ragozzine, and Michael E. Brown, shows that Haumea doesn’t have the same kinds of moons as Pluto, which has astronomers puzzling over Haumea’s origins.

Pluto and Haumea are the only two bodies in the outer Solar System that have more than one Moon. Pluto has five moons (Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra) while Haumea has two moons, Hi’iaka and Namaka. Haumea is also the parent of a number of icy bodies which were parts of its surface, but now orbit the Sun on their own. The two other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt, Eris and Makemake, each have only one moon.

The five moons of Pluto. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The five moons of Pluto. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One thing that differentiates Haumea from Pluto is Haumea’s family of small icy bodies that came from its surface. While Pluto has a number of small icy moons, Haumea’s icy bodies orbit the Sun independently, and are not moons. Other properties of Haumea, like its inordinately high rate of spin, make Haumea a very interesting object to study. They also differentiate Haumea from Pluto, and are leading to questions about the cousin relationship between the two. If they are indeed cousins, then shouldn’t they share the same formation method?

This shows how Pluto's moon Charon was created. 1: a Kuiper belt object approaches Pluto; 2: it impacts Pluto; 3: a dust ring forms around Pluto; 4: the debris aggregates to form Charon; 5: Pluto and Charon relax into spherical bodies. It's thought that the same collision created Pluto's other Moons as well. Image: Acom, Public Domain.
This shows how Pluto’s moon Charon was created. 1: a Kuiper belt object approaches Pluto; 2: it impacts Pluto; 3: a dust ring forms around Pluto; 4: the debris aggregates to form Charon; 5: Pluto and Charon relax into spherical bodies. It’s thought that the same collision created Pluto’s other Moons as well. Image: Acom, Public Domain.

Haumea’s lack of icy moons similar to Pluto’s was noted by researcher Darin Ragozzine. “While we’ve known about Pluto’s and Haumea’s moons for years, we now know that Haumea does not share tiny moons like Pluto’s, increasing our understanding of this intriguing object,” Ragozzine said.

There are definite similarities between Pluto and Haumea, but this study suggests that the satellite systems of the icy cousins, or former cousins, formed differently. “There is no self-consistent formation hypothesis for either set of satellites,” said Ragozzine.

Two things were at the heart of this new study. The first is the workhorse Hubble Space Telescope. In 2010, the Hubble focussed on Haumea, and captured 10 consecutive orbits to try to understand its family of satellites better.

The second thing at the heart of the study is called a “non-linear shift and stack method.” This is a novel technique which allows the detection of extremely faint and distant objects. When used in this study, it specifically ruled out the existence of small moons like the ones that orbit Pluto. This method may allow for future detection of other moons and Kuiper Belt Objects.

The study itself outlines some of Haumea’s properties that make it such an object of fascination for astronomers. It’s the fastest-rotating large body in the Solar System. In fact it rotates so quickly, that it’s near the rate at which the dwarf planet would break up. Haumea also has an unexpectedly high density, and a high albedo resulting from a surface of water ice. It’s two moons are in dynamically excited orbits, and its family of icy fragments is not near as dispersed as it should be. As the paper says, “There is no simple high-probability formation scenario that naturally explains all of these observational constraints.”

In the paper, the authors emphasize the puzzling nature of Haumea’s formation. To quote the paper, “Though multiple explanations and variations have been proposed, none have adequately and self-consistently explained all of the unique features of this interesting system and its family.”

The semi-major axes and inclinations of all known scattered-disc objects (in blue) up to 100 AU together with Kuiper-belt objects (in grey) and resonant objects (in green). The eccentricity of the orbits is represented by segments (extending from the perihelion to the aphelion) with the inclination represented on Y axis. Image: EuroCommuter http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
The semi-major axes and inclinations of all known scattered-disc objects (in blue) up to 100 AU together with Kuiper-belt objects (in grey) and resonant objects (in green). The eccentricity of the orbits is represented by segments (extending from the perihelion to the aphelion) with the inclination represented on Y axis. Image: EuroCommuter http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Some of the explanations proposed in other studies include a collision between objects in the scattered disk, which overlaps the Kuiper Belt and extends much further, rather than objects in the Kuiper Belt itself. Another proposes that Haumea’s two largest moons–Hi’iaka and Namaka–are themselves second generation moons formed from the breakup of a progenitor moon.

Though the study shows that the Pluto system and the Haumea system, erstwhile cousins in the Solar System, have followed different pathways to formation, it also concludes that a collision was indeed the main event for both dwarf planets. But what happened after that collision, and where exactly those collisions took place, are still intriguing questions.

2007 OR10 Needs A Name. We Suggest Dwarfplanet McDwarfplanetyface

Results of a study combining Kepler observations with Herschel data show that 2007 OR10 is the largest unnamed dwarf planet in our Solar System, and the third largest overall. Illustration: Konkoly Observatory/András Pál, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Iván Éder, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Depending on shifting definitions of what exactly is or isn’t a dwarf planet, our Solar System has about half a dozen dwarf planets. They are: Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake, Ceres, and 2007 OR10.

Even though 2007 OR10’s name makes it stand out from the rest, dwarf planets as a group are an odd bunch. They spend their time in the cold, outer reaches of the Solar System, with Ceres being the only exception. Ceres resides in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Their distance from Earth makes them difficult targets for observation, even with the largest telescopes we have. Even the keen eye of the Hubble Telescope, orbiting above Earth’s view-inhibiting atmosphere, struggles to get a good look at the dwarf planets. But astronomers using the Kepler spacecraft discovered that its extreme light sensitivity have made it a useful tool to study the dwarves.

In a paper published in The Astronomical Journal, a team led by Andras Pal, at Konkoly Observatory in Budapest, Hungary, have refined the measurement of 2007 OR10. Using the Kepler’s observational prowess, and combining it with archival data from the Herschel Space Observatory, the team has come up with a much more detailed understanding of 2007 OR10.

Previously, 2007 OR10 was thought to be about 1280 km (795 miles) in diameter. But the problem is the dwarf planet was only a faint, tiny, and distant point of light. Astronomers knew it was there, but didn’t know much else. Objects as far away as 2007 OR10, which is currently twice as far away from the Sun as Pluto is, can either be small, bright objects, or much larger, dimmer objects that reflect less light.

This is where the Kepler came in. It has exquisite sensitivity to tiny changes in light. Its whole mission is built around that sensitivity. It’s what has made Kepler such an effective tool for identifying exo-planets. Pointing it towards a tiny target like 2007 OR10, and monitoring the reflected light as the object rotates, is a logical use for Kepler.

Even so, Kepler alone wasn’t able to give the team a thorough understanding of the dwarf planet with the clumsy name.

Enter the Herschel Space Observatory, a powerful infrared space telescope. Herschel and its 3.5 metre (11.5 ft.) mirror were in operation at LaGrange 2 from 2009 to 2013. Herschel discovered many things in its mission-span, including solid evidence for comets being the source of water for planets, including Earth.

But the Herschel Observatory also bequeathed an enormous archive of data to astronomers and other space scientists. And that data was crucial to the new measurement of 2007 OR10.

Combining data and observations from multiple sources is not uncommon, and is often the only way to learn much about distant, tiny objects. In this case, the two telescopes were together able to determine the amount of sunlight reflected by the dwarf planet, using Kepler’s light sensitivity, and then measure the amount of that light later radiated back as heat, using Herschel’s infrared capabilities.

Combining those datasets gave a much clearer idea of the size, and reflectivity, of 2007 OR10. In this case, the team behind the new paper was able to determine that 2007 OR10 was significantly larger than previously thought. It’s measured size is now 1535 km (955 mi) in diameter. This is 255 km (160 mi) larger than previously measured.

It also tells us that the dwarf planet’s gravity is stronger, and the surface darker, than previously measured. This further cements the oddball status of 2007 OR10, since other dwarf planets are much brighter. Other observations of the planet have shown that is has a reddish color, which could be the result of methane ice on the surface.

Lead researcher Andras Pal said, “Our revised larger size for 2007 OR10 makes it increasingly likely the planet is covered in volatile ices of methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen, which would be easily lost to space by a smaller object. It’s thrilling to tease out details like this about a distant, new world — especially since it has such an exceptionally dark and reddish surface for its size.”

Now that more is known about 2007 OR10, perhaps its time it was given a better name, something that’s easier to remember and that helps it fit in with its peer planets Pluto, Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. According to convention, the honor of naming it goes to the planet’s discoverers, Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown and David Rabinowitz. They discovered it in 2007 during a search for distant bodies in the Solar System.

According to Schwamb, “The names of Pluto-sized bodies each tell a story about the characteristics of their respective objects. In the past, we haven’t known enough about 2007 OR10 to give it a name that would do it justice. I think we’re coming to a point where we can give 2007 OR10 its rightful name.”

The Universe is vast, and we need some numbered, structured way to name everything. And these names have to mean something scientifically. That’s why objects end up with names like 2007 OR10, or SDSS J0100+2802, the name given to a distant, ancient quasar. But objects closer to home, and certainly everything in our Solar System, deserves a more memory-friendly name.

So what’s it going to be? If you think you have a great name for the oddball dwarf named 2007 OR10, let us hear it in a tweet, or in the comments section.

Dark Moon Discovered Orbiting Dwarf Planet Makemake

Planetary scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a dark mini-moon orbiting the distant dwarf planet Makemake. The moon, nicknamed MK 2, is roughly 160 km (100 miles) wide and orbits about 20,000 km (13,000 miles) from Makemake. Makemake is 1,300 times brighter than its moon and is also much larger, at 1,400 km (870 miles) across, about 2/3rd the size of Pluto.

“Our discovery of the Makemakean moon means that every formally-designated Kuiper Belt dwarf planet has at least one moon!” said Alex Parker on Twitter. Parker, along with Mark Buie, both from the Southwest Research Institute, led the same team that found the small moons of Pluto in 2005, 2011, and 2012, and they used the same Hubble technique to find MK 2. NASA says Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 has the unique ability to see faint objects near bright ones, and together with its sharp resolution, allowed the scientists to pull the moon out from bright Makemake’s glare.

Artist impression of Makemake and its moon. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Parker (Southwest Research Institute).
Artist impression of Makemake and its moon. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Parker (Southwest Research Institute).

Previous searches for moons around Makemake came up empty, but Parker said their analysis shows the moon has a very dark surface and it is also in a nearly edge-on orbit, which made it very hard to find.

This moon might be able to provide more details about Makemake, such as its mass and density. For example, when Pluto’s moon Charon was discovered in 1978, astronomers were able to measure Charon’s orbit and then calculate the mass of Pluto, which showed Pluto’s mass was hundreds of times smaller than originally estimated.

“Makemake is in the class of rare Pluto-like objects, so finding a companion is important,” Parker said. “The discovery of this moon has given us an opportunity to study Makemake in far greater detail than we ever would have been able to without the companion.”

Parker also said the discovery of a moon for Makemake might solve a long-standing mystery about the dwarf planet. Thermal observations of Makemake by the Spitzer and Herschel space observatories seemed to show the bright world had some darker, warmer material on its surface, but other observations couldn’t confirm this.

Parker said perhaps the dark material isn’t on Makemake’s surface, but instead is in orbit. “I modeled the emission we expect from Makemake’s moon, and if the moon is very dark, it accounts for most previous thermal measurements,” he said on Twitter.

The researchers will need more Hubble observations to make accurate measurements to determine if the moon’s orbit is elliptical or circular, and this could help determine its origin. A tight circular orbit means that MK 2 probably formed from a collision between Makemake and another Kuiper Belt Object. If the moon is in a wide, elongated orbit, it is more likely to be a captured object from the Kuiper Belt. Many KBOs are covered with very dark material, so that might explain the dark surface of MK 2.

Read the team’s paper.
HubbleSite info on the discovery

Best NASA Images Yet Of Ceres’ Brightest Spot

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The bright central spots near the center of Occator Crater are shown in enhanced color in this view from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. The view was produced by combining the highest resolution images taken in February 2016 at an image scale of 115 feet (35 meters) per pixel with color images obtained in September 2015 at a lower resolution added. Click for a highest-res view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Ah, dome sweet dome. Scientists from NASA’s Dawn mission unveiled new images from the spacecraft’s lowest orbit at Ceres, including highly anticipated views of Occator Crater, at the 47th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, on Tuesday. The new images, taken from Dawn’s low-altitude mapping orbit (LAMO) of 240 miles (385 kilometers) above Ceres, reveal a dome in a smooth-walled pit in the bright center of the crater. Linear fractures crisscross the top and flanks of the dome with still more fractures slicing across the nearby plains.

Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Occator Crater, measuring 57 miles (92 kilometers) across and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) deep, contains the brightest area on Ceres. This photo has been exposed to show detail in the crater and landscape, so the bright spots are overexposed. The closeup photos on the other hand are correctly exposed to show detail in the spots but necessarily underexpose the landscape and make it look very dark. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

“Before Dawn began its intensive observations of Ceres last year, Occator Crater looked to be one large bright area. Now, with the latest close views, we can see complex features that provide new mysteries to investigate,” said Ralf Jaumann, planetary scientist and Dawn co-investigator at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin. “The intricate geometry of the crater interior suggests geologic activity in the recent past, but we will need to complete detailed geologic mapping of the crater in order to test hypotheses for its formation.”

The bright central spots near the center of Occator Crater are shown in enhanced color in this view from NASA's Dawn spacecraft. The view was produced by combining the highest resolution images taken in February 2016 (at image scales 115 feet (35 meters) per pixel of 35 meters with color images obtained in September 2015 at a lower resolution. Click for a highest-res view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Black and white view of the bright spots in Occator Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Like me, you’ve probably been anticipating LAMO for months, when we’d finally get our clearest view of the famous “bright spots”. Spectral observations have shown that the patches are consistent with a magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite that resembles the more familiar Epsom salts here on Earth. Scientists think these salt-rich areas were residue left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids could have broken into Ceres’ crust and possibly unearthed salt-rich ices. Exposed to the vacuum of space, the ice would have sublimated (vaporized), leaving the salt behind.

This global map shows the surface of Ceres in enhanced color, encompassing infrared wavelengths beyond human visual range. Images taken using infrared (965 nanometers), green (555 nanometers) and blue (438 nanometers) spectral filters were combined to create this view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
This global map shows the surface of Ceres in enhanced color, including infrared wavelengths beyond human visual range. Photos were taken using infrared, green and blue filters and combined to create this view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

The team also released an enhanced color map of the surface of Ceres that reveals a diversity of surface materials and how they relate to Ceres’ landforms. The dwarf planet doesn’t have as many large impact basins as scientists expected, but the number of smaller craters generally matches their predictions. The blue material highlighted in the color map is related to flows, smooth plains and mountains, which appear to be very young surface features.

“Although impact processes dominate the surface geology on Ceres, we have identified specific color variations on the surface indicating material alterations that are due to a complex interaction of the impact process and the subsurface composition,” Jaumann said. “Additionally, this gives evidence for a subsurface layer enriched in ice and volatiles.”

 This map shows a portion of the northern hemisphere of Ceres with neutron counting data acquired by the gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) instrument aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These data reflect the concentration of hydrogen in the upper yard (or meter) of regolith, the loose surface material on Ceres. The color information is based on the number of neutrons detected per second by GRaND. Counts decrease with increasing hydrogen concentration. The color scale of the map is from blue (lowest neutron count) to red (highest neutron count). Lower neutron counts near the pole suggest the presence of water ice within about a yard (meter) of the surface at high latitudes.

This map shows part of Ceres’ northern hemisphere with neutron counting data from Dawn’s gamma ray and neutron detector (GRaND) instrument and reflect the concentration of hydrogen in the upper yard (or meter) of regolith, the loose surface material on Ceres. Colors are based on the number of neutrons detected per second by GRaND. Counts decrease with increasing hydrogen concentration. The color scale of the map is from blue (lowest neutron count) to red (highest neutron count). Lower neutron counts near the pole suggest the presence of water ice within about a yard (meter) of the surface at high latitudes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

We’re learning more about that subsurface ice thanks to Dawn’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND). Neutrons and gamma rays produced by cosmic rays interacting with the topmost yard (meter) of the loose rock and dust called regolith provide a fingerprint of Ceres’ chemical makeup. Lower counts indicate the presence of hydrogen, and since water’s rich in hydrogen (H2o), the results from GRanD suggest concentrations of water ice in the near-surface at high latitudes.

“Our analyses will test a longstanding prediction that water ice can survive just beneath Ceres’ cold, high-latitude surface for billions of years,” said Tom Prettyman, the lead for GRaND and Dawn co-investigator at the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona.

Ceres’ Oxo Crater (right) is the only place on the dwarf planet where water has been detected on the surface so far. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI
Ceres’ Oxo Crater (right) is the only place on the dwarf planet where water has been detected on the surface so far. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Dawn scientists also reported that the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIR) has detected water at Oxo Crater, a young, 6-mile-wide (9-kilometer-wide) feature in Ceres’ northern hemisphere. This water could either be bound up in minerals or exist as ice and may have been exposed during a landslide or impact or a combination of the two events.  Oxo is the only place on Ceres where water has been detected at the surface so far.

Ceres' Haulani Crater (21 miles, 34 kilometers wide) is shown in these views from the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR) aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft. These views reveal variations in the region's brightness, mineralogy and temperature at infrared wavelengths. The image at far left shows brightness variations in Haulani. Light with a wavelength of 1200 nanometers is shown in blue, 1900 nanometers in green and 2300 nanometers in red. The view at center is a false color image, highlighting differences in the types of rock and ejected material around the crater. Scientists see this as evidence that the material in this area is not uniform, and that the crater's interior has a different composition than its surroundings.
Ceres’ Haulani Crater (21 miles, 34 kilometers wide) is shown in these views made with VIR. They reveal variations in the region’s brightness, mineralogy and temperature at infrared wavelengths in the types of rock and ejected material around the crater. Scientists see this as evidence that the material in this area is not uniform, and that the crater’s interior has a different composition than its surroundings. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA/PSI

Not only have scientists found evidence of possible extensive subsurface ice, but the composition of the surface is variable. Using VIR, which measures mineral composition by how those minerals reflect sunlight, they found that Haulani Crater shows a different proportion of surface materials than its surroundings. While the surface of Ceres is mostly made of a mixture of materials containing carbonates and phyllosilicates (clays), their relative proportion varies across the surface.

“False-color images of Haulani show that material excavated by an impact is different than the general surface composition of Ceres. The diversity of materials implies either that there is a mixed layer underneath, or that the impact itself changed the properties of the materials,” said Maria Cristina de Sanctis, the VIR instrument lead scientist.

All these cool stuff we’re finding out about this small body makes it nearly as exciting as Pluto. Taking a closer look is the best form of education.

Clouds Seen On Pluto For First Time

Recent images sent by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the streaky patch at right. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Recent images sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show possible clouds floating over the frozen landscape including the hazy streak right of center. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

I think we were all blown away when the New Horizons spacecraft looked back at Pluto’s dark side and returned the first photos of a surprisingly complex, layered atmosphere. Colorless nitrogen along with a small percentage of methane make up Pluto’s air. Layers of haze are likely created when the two gases react in sunlight to form tiny, soot-like particles called tholins. These can ultimately grow large enough to settle toward the surface and coat and color Pluto’s icy exterior.

Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit:
Close up of the back side of Pluto taken by New Horizons shows multiple layers of haze in its mostly nitrogen atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Now it seems Pluto’s atmosphere is capable of doing even more — making clouds! In an e-mail exchange with New Scientist, Lowell Observatory astronomer Will Grundy discusses the possibility that streaks and small condensations within the hazes might be individual clouds. Grundy also tracked a feature as it passed over different parts of the Plutonian landscape below, strongly suggesting a cloud.  If confirmed, they’d be the first-ever clouds seen on the dwarf planet, and a sign this small 1,473-mile-wide (2,370 km) orb possesses an even more complex atmosphere than imagined.

Faint arrows along Pluto's limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwR
Faint arrows along Pluto’s limb point to possible clouds in a low altitude haze layer. More distinct possible clouds are arrowed at left. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto's tenuous but distended atmosphere.
15 minutes after its closest approach, New Horizons snapped this image of the smooth expanse of Sputnik Planum (right) flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Given the onion-like layers of haze and potential clouds, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprise that it snows on Pluto. The New Horizons team announced the discovery this week of a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse of the informally named Cthulhu Regio. Cthulhu, pronounced kuh-THU-lu and named for a character in American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s books, stretches nearly halfway around Pluto’s equator, starting from the west of the vast nitrogen ice plain, Sputnik Planum. At 1,850 miles (3,000 km) long and 450 miles (750 km) wide, Cthulhu is a bit larger than the state of Alaska. But ever so much colder!

A section of Cthulhu Regio boasts peaks covered in methane frost or snow.
The upper slopes of Cthulhu’s highest peaks are coated with a bright material that contrasts sharply with the dark red color of the surrounding plains. Scientists think it’s methane ice condensed from Pluto’s atmosphere. The far right panel shows the distribution of methane ice on the surface. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Cthulhu’s red color probably comes from a covering of dark tholins formed when methane interacts with sunlight. But new close-up images reveal that the region’s highest mountains appear coated with a much brighter material. Scientists think it’s methane, condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere.

“That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member.

Compositional data from the New Horizon’s Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), shown in the right panel in the image above, shows that the location of the bright ice on the mountain peaks correlates almost exactly with the distribution of methane ice, shown in false color as purple.

New Horizons still has plenty of images stored on its hard drive, so we’re likely to see more clouds, frosty peaks and gosh-knows-what-else as the probe speeds ever deeper into space while returning daily postcards from its historic encounter.

Spotlight On Pluto’s Frozen Polar Canyons

This enhanced color view Long canyons run vertically across the polar area—part of the informally named Lowell Regio, named for Percival Lowell, who founded Lowell Observatory and initiated the search that led to Pluto’s discovery. The widest of the canyons is about 45 miles (75 kilometers) wide and runs close to the north pole. Roughly parallel subsidiary canyons to the east and west are approximately 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide.
This enhanced color view shows long canyons running vertically across Pluto’s north polar region — part of the informally named Lowell Regio, named for Percival Lowell, who founded Lowell Observatory and initiated the search that led to Pluto’s discovery. The widest of the canyons is about 45 miles (75 km) wide and runs close to the north pole. Roughly parallel secondary canyons to the east and west are approximately 6 miles (10 km) wide. Click for a hi-res view. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

Pluto’s frozen nitrogen custard “heart” has certainly received its share of attention. Dozens of wide and close-up photos homing on this fascinating region rimmed by mountains and badlands have been relayed back to Earth by NASA’s New Horizons probe after last July’s flyby. For being only 1,473 miles (2,370 km) in diameter, Pluto displays an incredible diversity of landscapes.

Annotated version of Pluto's north polar region.
Annotated version showing sinuous valleys, canyons and depressions and irregular-shaped pits. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI with additional annotations by the author

This week, the New Horizons team shifted its focus northward, re-releasing an enhanced color image of the north polar area that was originally part of a high-resolution full-disk photograph of Pluto. Inside of the widest canyon, you can trace the sinuous outline of a narrower valley similar in outward appearance to the Moon’s Alpine Valleycut by a narrow, curvy rill that once served as a conduit for lava.

A composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon's polar red terrain and Pluto's equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale.
A composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their separation is not to scale. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

We see multiple canyons in Pluto’s polar region, their walls broken and degraded compared to canyons seen elsewhere on the planet. Signs that they may be older and made of weaker materials and likely formed in ancient times when Pluto was more tectonically active. Perhaps they’re related to that long-ago dance between Pluto and its largest moon Charon as the two transitioned into their current tidally-locked embrace.

Cropped version showing three, odd-shaped pits that may reflect sinking of Pluto's crust. Credit:
Cropped version with arrows pointing to three, odd-shaped pits that may reflect sinking of Pluto’s crust. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

In the lower right corner of the image, check out those funky-shaped pits that resemble the melting outlines of boot prints in the snow. They reach 45 miles (70 km) across and 2.5 miles (4 km) deep and may indicate locations where subsurface ice has melted or sublimated (vaporized) from below, causing the ground to collapse.

Notice the variation in color across the landscape from yellow-orange to pale blue. High elevations show up in a distinctive yellow, not seen elsewhere on Pluto, with lower elevations and latitudes a bluish gray. New Horizons’ infrared measurements show abundant methane ice across the Lowell Region, with relatively little nitrogen ice. The yellow terrains may be older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar UV light than the bluer terrain. The color variations are especially striking in the area of the collapse pits.

The new map shows exposed water ice to be considerably more widespread across Pluto's surface than was previously known - an important discovery.
The new map shows exposed water ice at Pluto to be considerably more widespread across its surface than was previously known. Its greatest concentration lies in the red-hued regions (in visual light) to the west of Tombaugh Regio, the large, heart-shaped feature. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

Pluto’s icy riches include not only methane and nitrogen but also water, which forms the planet’s bedrock. NASA poetically refers to the water ice as “the canvas on which (Pluto’s) more volatile ices paint their seasonally changing patterns”. Recent images made in infrared light shows little or no water ice in the informally named places called Sputnik Planum (the left or western region of Pluto’s “heart”) and Lowell Regio. This indicates that at least in these regions, Pluto’s bedrock remains well hidden beneath a thick blanket of other ices such as methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.

To delve more deeply into Pluto, visit the NASA’s photojournal archive, where you’ll find 130 photos (and counting!) of the dwarf planet and its satellites.