The crater that contains those puzzlingly bright spots on Ceres may harbor an equally puzzling haze. Or not. The hints of haze on the dwarf planet, seen in some of the images coming from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, add another intriguing twist to Ceres’ mysteries.
The hubbub over haze arose this week during the Exploration Science Forum at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. For months, Dawn’s scientists have been observing – and trying to make sense out of – unusually reflective spots within Ceres’ craters that show up when the asteroid turns into the sunlight. The team has speculated that they could be frozen pools of water ice, or patches of light-colored, salt-rich material.
The brightest spots are known collectively as Spot 5, and sit inside Occator Crater on Ceres. Dawn’s principal investigator, Chris Russell of the University of California at Los Angeles, told the forum that some type of haze could be seen inside the crater at certain times of Ceres’ day, according to reports from Nature and the Planetary Society. Nature quoted Russell as saying the bright spots “could be providing some atmosphere in this particular region of Ceres.”
Last year, scientists with the European Space Agency’s Herschel mission reported detecting signs of water vapor rising from Ceres’ surface, and it would be tempting to suggest that the water vapor is emanating from bright icy spots and creating the haze. That would strengthen Ceres’ status as the only asteroid with a significant atmosphere and a subsurface reservoir of water, and stoke speculation about life on Ceres.
However, Russell told Universe Today that it’s way too early to give in to temptation.
“I was speaking from less than a handful of images, and the interpretation of the images is disputed by some team members,” Russell said in an email. “I would like the debate to go on internally before we make a pronouncement one way or the other. I of course have my personal opinion, but I am not always right.”
Russell said the ice-vs.-salt debate is continuing. “I originally was an advocate of ice, because of how bright the spots seemed to be,” he said. However, the bright material’s albedo, or reflectivity factor, is about 50 percent – which is less than Russell originally thought. “This could be salt and is unlikely to be ice. I think the team opinion is now more in line with salt,” he said.
Either way, Russell doesn’t see any way for the spots to form without internal activity on Ceres. “Thus, the very existence of the spots tells us that there is some active process going on,” he told Universe Today.
Will we ever know if the haze is for real? Or what the spots are made of? As the Magic 8-Ball might say, “Ask again later.” The Dawn spacecraft recently recovered from a mechanical glitch and is gradually descending to a closer mapping orbit, around an altitude of 900 miles (1,500 kilometers). That will provide a much better look at Occator Crater and what lies within.
“Eventually I am expecting the spectral data will unambiguously tell us what has happened to the surface,” Russell said, “but it is a little too soon to be sure.”
Watch Pluto grow in this series of photos taken during New Horizons’ approach
Whew! We’re out of the woods. On schedule at 9 p.m. EDT, New Horizons phoned home telling the mission team and the rest of the on-edge world that all went well. The preprogrammed “phone call” — a 15-minute series of status messages beamed back to mission operations at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratoryin Maryland through NASA’s Deep Space Network — ended a tense 21-hour waiting period.
The team deliberately suspended communications with New Horizons until it was beyond the Pluto system, so the spacecraft could focus solely on data gathering. With a mountain of information now queued up, it’s estimated it will take 16 months to get it all back home. As the precious morsels arrive bit by byte, New Horizons will sail deeper into the Kuiper Belt looking for new targets until it ultimately departs the Solar System.
Assuming NASA funds a continuing mission, the team hopes to direct the spacecraft to one or two additional Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) over the next five to seven years. There are presently three possible targets – PT1, PT2, and PT3. (PT = potential target). PT1, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, looks like the best option at the moment and could by reached by January 2019. If you thought Pluto was small, PT 1 is only about 25 miles (40 km) across. Much lies ahead.
We did it! At 7:49 a.m. EDT today New Horizons made history when it zoomed within 7,800 miles of Pluto, the most remote object ever visited in the Solar System. I thought you’d like to see our best view yet of Pluto in this last and sharpest image taken before closest approach. The level of detail is fantastic.
Universe Today’s Ken Kremer is on the scene at mission control, and we’ll have much more news and analysis for you later today. For now, here’s a taste.
Pluto encounter July 14th 11:00-12:00 UTC (6:00am CDT) by Tom Ruen
Pluto has a very complex surface. The fact that large areas show few craters – as compared to say, Ceres or Vesta – shows that there have relatively recent changes there. Maybe very recent. Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission, was asked by a report at this morning’s press conference if it snows on Pluto. His answer: “It sure looks like it.”
Stern is also confident the spacecraft survived closest approach without getting bulleted by dust. We should know tonight when it “phones home” around 9 p.m. EDT.
With the Pluto flyby the latest achievement in over 50 years of humankind’s exploration of the Solar System’s wild assortment of moons, planets and comets, see the bounty of our efforts in this wonderful compendium titled From Pluto to the Sun by Jon Keegan, Chris Canipe and Alberto Cervantes.
Countdown to discovery! Not since Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989 have we flung a probe into the frozen outskirts of the Solar System. Speeding along at 30,800 miles per hour New Horizons will pierce the Pluto system like a smartly aimed arrow.
Edging within 7,800 miles of its surface at 7:49 a.m. EDT, the spacecraft’s long-range telescopic camera will resolve features as small as 230 feet (70 meters). Fourteen minutes later, it will zip within 17,930 miles of Charon as well as image Pluto’s four smaller satellites — Hydra, Styx, Nix and Kerberos.
After zooming past, the craft will turn to photograph Pluto eclipsing the Sun as it looks for the faint glow of rings or dust sheets illuminated by backlight. At the same time, sunlight reflecting off Charon will faintly illuminate Pluto’s backside. What could be more romantic than Charonshine?
Six other science instruments will build thermal maps of the Pluto-Charon pair, measure the composition of the surface and atmosphere and observe Pluto’s interaction with the solar wind. All of this will happen autopilot. It has to. There’s just no time to send a change instructions because of the nearly 9-hour lag in round-trip communications between Earth and probe.
Want to go along for the ride? Download and install NASA’s interactive app Eyes on Pluto and then click the launch button on the website. You’ll be shown several options including a live view and preview. Click preview and sit back to watch the next few days of the mission unfold before your eyes.
Like me, you’ve probably wondered how daylight on Pluto compares to that on Earth. From 3 billion miles away, the Sun’s too small to see as a disk with the naked eye but still wildly bright. With NASA’s Pluto Time, select your city on an interactive mapand get the time of day when the two are equal. For my city, daylight on Pluto equals the gentle light of early evening twilight six minutes after sunset. An ideal time for walking, but step lightly. In Pluto’s gentle gravity, you only weigh 1/15 as much as on Earth.
New Horizons is the first mission to the Kuiper Belt, a gigantic zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune. This region also is known as the “third” zone of our solar system, beyond the inner rocky planets and outer gas giants. Pluto is its most famous member, though not necessarily the largest. Eris, first observed in 2003, is nearly identical in size. It’s estimated there are hundreds of thousands of icy asteroids larger than 61 miles (100 km) across along with a trillion comets in the Belt, which begins at 30 a.u. (30 times Earth’s distance from the Sun) and reaches to 55 a.u.
Below you’ll find a schedule of events in Eastern Time. (Subtract one hour for Central, 2 hours for Mountain and 3 hours for Pacific). Keep in mind the probe will be busy shooting photos and gathering data during the flyby, so we’ll have to wait until Wednesday July 15 to see the the detailed close ups of Pluto and its moons. Even then, New Horizons’ recorders will be so jammed with data and images, it’ll take months to beam it all back to Earth.
Fasten your seat belts — we’re in for an exciting ride.
We’ll be reporting on results and sharing photos from the flyby here at Universe Today, but you’ll also want to check out NASA’s live coverage on NASA TV, its website and social media.
Monday, July 13
10:30 a.m. to noon – Media briefing on mission status and what to expect broadcast live on NASA TV
Tuesday, July 14
7:30 to 8 a.m. – Arrival at Pluto! Countdown program on NASA TV
At approximately 7:49 a.m., New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 km) above the surface, after a journey of more than 9 years and 3 billion miles. For much of the day, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control as it gathers data about Pluto and its moons.
The moment of closest approach will be marked during a live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.
8 to 9 a.m. – Media briefing, image release on NASA TV
Wednesday, July 15
3 to 4 p.m. – Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto in a New Light; live on NASA TV and release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.
We’ll have the latest Pluto photos for you, but you can also check these excellent sites:
Bit by the Pluto bug? Day by day, new images appear showing an ever clearer view of a world we inexplicably love. Call it a dwarf planet. Call it a planet. It’s the unknown, and we can’t help but be drawn there.
Pluto made history when it was discovered in 1930. In 2015, it’s doing it all over again. Check out the new geology peeping into view.I’m reminded of the early explorers who shoved off in wooden ships in search of land across the water. After a long and often perilous journey, the mists would finally clear and the dark outline of land take form in the distance. It’s been 9 1/2 years since our collective Pluto voyage began. Yeah, we’re almost there.
Today’s image release clearly shows a world growing more geologically diverse by the day.
“We’re close enough now that we’re just starting to see Pluto’s geology,” said New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur, on NASA’s website. Niebur, who’s keenly interested in the gray area just above the whale’s “tail” feature, called it a “unique transition region with a lot of dynamic processes interacting, which makes it of particular scientific interest.”
Not only that, but the new photo shows an approximately 1,000-mile-long band of swirly terrain crossing the planet from east to northeast, a large, polygonal (roughly hexagonal) feature and new textures within the ‘whale’.
Even to a layperson’s eye, Pluto’s terrain appears very different from that of Ceres or Vesta. In trying to make sense of what we see, Neptune’s moon Triton may be our best Plutonian analog with its frosts, weird cantaloupe terrain and an assortment of dark patches, some produced by icy volcanism.
Other recent photos include this pretty view of Charon and Triton snapped late on July 8. NASA describes them eloquently as “two icy worlds, spinning around their common center of gravity like a pair of figure skaters clasping hands.” Charon and all of Pluto’s known moons formed from debris released when another planet struck Pluto long ago. New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern attributes its bland color to its composition — mostly water ice. Pluto in contrast has a mantle of water ice, but it’s coated with methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide ices and possibly organic compounds, too.
For a nail-biting hour and 20 minutes, NASA lost contact yesterday afternoon July 4 with the New Horizons spacecraft just 9 days before its encounter with Pluto. Communication has since been reestablished and the spacecraft is healthy.
(UPDATE July 6: Great news! The mission will return to normal science operations July 7 – more details below.)
At 1:54 p.m. EDT, communications suddenly stopped and weren’t reestablished until 3:15 p.m. through NASA’s Deep Space Network. During the time it was out of contact with mission control, the spacecraft’s autonomous autopilot recognized the problem and did what it was programmed to do, switching from the main to the backup computer, according to NASA officials. The autopilot then commanded the backup computer to put New Horizons in “safe mode” — where all non-essential functions are shut down — and reinitiate communications with Earth.
Success! We’re now back in touch with the spacecraft and engineers are monitoring telemetry to figure out what went wrong. New Horizons is presently almost 3 billion miles (4.9 billion km) from Earth. Due to the 8.8 hour, round trip communication delay, full recovery is expected to take from one to several days. During that time New Horizons will be unable to collect science data.
If there’s any upside to this, it’s that it happened now instead of 9 days from now. On July 14 at 7:49:57 a.m. EDT the spacecraft will pass closest to Pluto.
Check back for updates. In the meantime, you can watch a live connection between New Horizons and the Deep Space Network. The probe is labeled NHPC and the dish 63 (first entry).
UPDATE: July 6. NASA announced earlier this morning that has concluded the glitch that caused the New Horizons spacecraft to go into safe mode was not due to a software or hardware fault.
“The underlying cause of the incident was a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby. No similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter,” according to a NASA release.
No primary science will be lost and secondary goals were only slightly compromised. Mission control expects science operations to resume on July 7 and to conduct the entire close flyby sequence as planned.
“In terms of science, it won’t change an A-plus even into an A,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
Hey, Mars, you’ve got company. Looks like there’s a second “red planet” in the Solar System — Pluto. Color images returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, now just 10 days from its encounter with the dwarf planet, show a distinctly ruddy surface with patchy markings that strongly resemble Mars’ appearance in a small telescope.
On Mars, iron oxide or rust colors the planet’s soil, while Pluto’s coloration is likely caused by hydrocarbon molecules called tholins that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface. Airborne tholins fall out of the atmosphere and coat the surface with a reddish gunk.
A particular color or wavelength of UV light called Lyman-alpha is most effective at stimulating the chemical reactions that build hydrocarbons at Pluto. Recent measurements with New Horizons’ Alice instrument reveal the diffuse glow of Lyman-alpha light all around the dwarf planet coming from all directions of space, not just the Sun.
Since one of the main sources of Lyman-alpha light besides the Sun are regions of vigorous star formation in young galaxies, Pluto’s cosmetic rouge may originate in events happening millions of light years away.
“Pluto’s reddish color has been known for decades, but New Horizons is now allowing us to correlate the color of different places on the surface with their geology and soon, with their compositions,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
Tholins have been found on other bodies in the outer Solar System, including Titan and Triton, the largest moons of Saturn and Neptune, respectively, and made in laboratory experiments that simulate the atmospheres of those bodies.
As you study the photos and animation, you’ll notice that Pluto’s largest dark spot is redder than the most of the surface; you also can’ help but wonder what’s going on with those four evenly-spaced dark streaks in the equatorial zone. When I first saw them, my reaction was “no way!” They look so neatly lined up I assumed it was an image artifact, but after seeing the rotating movie, maybe not. It’s more likely that low resolution enhances the appearance of alignment.
But what are they? Located as they are on the Charon-facing side of Pluto, they may be related to long-ago tidal stresses induced by each body on the other as they slowly settled into their current tidally-locked embrace or something as current as seasonal change.
Voyager 2 photographed cyrovolcanos at Triton during its 1989 flyby of the Neptune system. Nitrogen geysers and plumes of gas and ice as high as 5 miles (8 km) were seen erupting from active volcanoes, leaving dark streaks on its icy surface.
Seasonal heating from the Sun is the most likely cause for Triton’s eruptions; Pluto’s dark streaks may have a similar origin.
Today, New Horizons lies just 7.4 million miles (11.9 million km) from its target. Sharpness and detail visible will rapidly improve in just a few days.
“Even at this resolution, Pluto looks like no other world in our Solar System,” said mission scientist Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder in a recent press release.
You’re probably as eager as I am for new images of Pluto and Ceres as both New Horizons and Dawn push ever closer to their respective little worlds. Recent photos, of which there are only a few, reveal some wild new features including what appears to a large crater on Pluto.
In the end, this apparent large impact might only be a contrast effect or worse, an artifact of over-processing, but there’s no denying its strong resemblance to foreshortened, shadow-filled craters seen on the Moon and other moons. It’s also encouraging that an earlier photo from June 27 shows the same feature. But the “crater” is just so … big! Its size seems disproportionate to the Pluto’s globe and recalls Saturn’s 246-mile-wide moon Mimas with its 81-mile-wide crater Herschel.
Astronomers speculate the impact that gouged out Herschel came perilously close to shattering the moon to pieces. If it does turn out to be an crater, Pluto’s surface opposite the impact will likely show many fractures. Not to be outdone, the dwarf planet’s largest moon, Charon, is starting to show a personality of its own with a prominent dark north polar cap.
Since polar caps are normally bright, icy features, some have referred to this one as an “anti-polar cap”. Speaking of ice, the bright rim around Pluto in the photo above may be nitrogen frost condensing out of Pluto’s scant atmosphere as it slowly recedes from the Sun. Think how cold it must have to get for nitrogen to freeze out. How about -346° F (-210° C)! For new images of the Pluto system, be sure to check the New Horizons LORRI gallery page.
Closer to home, new photos of Ceres show a peculiar, pyramid-shaped mountain towering 3 miles (5 km) high from a relatively smooth region between two large craters. Mountains poking from crater floors aren’t unusual. They’re tossed up after the crust later rebounds after a large impact. What makes this one unusual is the lack of an associated crater. Moreover, the mountain’s pale hue could indicate it’s younger than the surrounding landscape. As far as we can tell, it’s the only tall mountain on the face of the dwarf planet.
The Dawn team also photographed that cluster of white spots again, this time with a very shot exposure in to eke out more details. What do you think? If you’re as interested in asteroids as I am, Italian astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, a frequent photo contributor to Universe Today, will host a special live Asteroid Day event today starting at 6 p.m. CDT (23:00 UT). Masi will review near-Earth asteroids, explain discovery techniques and observe several in real time.
Hey Pluto, it’s great to see your face! Since sending its last batch of images in April, NASA’s New Horizons probe lopped off another 20 million miles in its journey to the mysterious world. Among the latest revelations: the dwarf planet displays a much more varied surface and the bright polar cap discovered earlier this spring appears even bigger.
“These new images show us that Pluto’s differing faces are each distinct; likely hinting at what may be very complex surface geology or variations in surface composition from place to place,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Mission scientists caution against over-interpreting some of the smaller details. The photos have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which strips away the out-of-focus information to enhance features on Pluto. Deconvolution can occasionally add “false” details or artifacts, so the smallest features in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks.
Compared to recent photos of Ceres, the other dwarf planet in the limelight this season, Pluto shows only light and dark blotches. That’s how Ceres started out too. All those variations in tone and texture suggest a fascinating and complex surface. And it’s clear that the polar cap — whatever it might ultimately be — is extensive and multi-textured. The images were taken from a little less than 50 million miles (77 million km) away or about the same distance Mars is from Earth during a typical opposition.
Watch for dramatic improvements in the images as New Horizons speeds toward its target, covering 750,000 miles per day until closest approach on July 14. By late June, they’ll have four times the resolution; during the flyby that will improve to 5,000 times. The spacecraft is currently 2.95 billion miles from Earth. Light, traveling at 186,00o miles per second, requires 8 hours and 47 minutes – the length of a typical work day – to make the long round trip.
The latest views of Ceres’ enigmatic white spots are sharper and clearer, but it’s obvious that Dawn will have to descend much lower before we’ll see crucial details hidden in this overexposed splatter of white dots. Still, there are hints of interesting things going on here.
The latest photo is part of a sequence of images shot for navigation purposes on May 16, when the spacecraft orbited 4,500 miles (7,200 km) over the dwarf planet. Of special interest are a series of troughs or cracks in Ceres crust that appear on either side of the crater housing the spots.
While the exact nature of the spots continues to baffle scientists, Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, has narrowed the possibilities: “Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice.”
We’ve seen ice exposed by meteorite / asteroid impact before on Mars where recent impacts have exposed fresh ice below the surface long hidden by dust. In most cases the ice gradually sublimates away or covered by dust over time. But if Ceres’ white spots are ice, then we can reasonably assume they must be relatively new features otherwise they would have vaporized or sublimated into space like the Martian variety.
Much has been written – including here – that these spots are the same as those photographed in much lower resolution by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004. But according the Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog, that’s false. He spoke to Joe Parker, who was part of the team that made the 2004 photos, and Parker says the Dawn spots and Hubble spots are not the same.
Could the spots have formed post-2004 or were they simply too small for Hubble to resolve them? That seems unlikely. The chances are slim we’d just happen to be there shortly after such a rare event occurred? And what happened to Hubble’s spot – did it sublimate away?
Video compiled from Dawn’s still frames of Ceres by Tom Ruen. Watch as the spots continue to reflect light even at local sunset.
Watching the still images of Ceres during rotation, it’s clear that sunlight still reflects from the spots when the crater fills with shadow at sunset and sunrise. This implies they’re elevated, and as far as I can tell from the sunrise photo (see below), the brightest spots appear to shine from along the the side of a hill or mountain. Could we be seeing relatively fresh ice or salts after recent landslides related to impact or tectonic forces exposed them to view?
Let’s visit another place in the Solar System with an enigmatic white spot, or should I say, white arc. It’s Wunda Crater on Uranus’ crater-blasted moon Umbriel. The 131-mile-wide crater, situated on the moon’s equator, is named for Wunda, a dark spirit in Aboriginal mythology. But on its floor is a bright feature about 6 miles (10 km) wide. We still don’t know what that one is either!