We previously examined how Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, could answer the longstanding question: Are we alone? With its nitrogen geysers discovered by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, possible interior ocean, and lack of craters, Triton could be geologically active, which makes it an excellent celestial body for future astrobiology missions. But Triton isn’t the only place on the edge of the solar system which garners interest for finding life beyond Earth, as one of the most familiar and well-known (former) planets also exhibits evidence of recent geological activity and crater-less surface features. This is everyone’s favorite dwarf planet, Pluto, which like Triton has only been visited by one spacecraft, this one being NASA’s New Horizons, in 2015. But even with only one visitation, we discovered so much about Pluto, and what it might be hiding, as well.Continue reading “Will Pluto finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’”
Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, started off as a beautiful, smooth red grape until someone came along, mostly peeled it, tried to smoosh it, then just gave up and walked away, leaving the poor moon to look like the absolute travesty that it is. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what happened, but Charon just looks like a mess and scientists want to know why. Never mind its smooshed equator, but what’s the deal with its red cap? Where did it come from and why is it red?Continue reading “Charon’s Red Cap at its North Pole? We Might Have an Answer”
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NASA has granted mission extensions to eight different planetary missions, citing the continued excellent operations of the spacecraft, but more importantly, the sustained scientific productivity of these missions, “and the potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.” Each mission will be extended for three more years.
One of the most exciting extensions gives a new mission to the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, sending it to one of the most infamous asteroids of them all, the potentially hazardous asteroid Apophis.Continue reading “Eight Missions are Getting Extensions, Most Exciting: OSIRIS-REx is Going to Asteroid Apophis”
In 1930, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered the fabled “Ninth Planet” (or “Planet X”) while working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The existence of this body had been predicted previously based on perturbations in the orbit of Uranus and Neptune. After receiving more than 1,000 suggestions from around the world, and a debate among the Observatory’s staff, this newfound object was named Pluto – which was proposed by a young schoolgirl from Oxford (Venetia Burney).
Since that time, Pluto has been the subject of considerable study, a naming controversy, and was visited for the first time on July 14th, 2015, by the New Horizons mission. One thing that has been clear from the beginning is the nature of Pluto’s orbit, which is highly eccentric and inclined. According to new research, Pluto’s orbit is relatively stable over longer timescales but is subject to chaotic perturbance and changes over shorter timescales.Continue reading “Pluto’s Orbit is Surprisingly Close to an Unstable Zone”
For all of Earth’s geological diversity and its long history, the planet has never had ice volcanoes. But Pluto has. And that cryovolcanism has shaped some of the ice dwarf’s surface features.
The resulting structures are unique in the Solar System.Continue reading “Pluto’s Surface was Shaped by Ice Volcanoes”
After New Horizons made its close flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, scientists were astounded at the incredible closeup views of Pluto’s surface. One of the most intriguing and mysterious features was a bright plain inside the prominent heart-shaped feature on Pluto, called “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) named after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.
The region is composed of a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments that appear to be geologically young because no impact craters are part of the terrain.Continue reading “Now We Know Why Pluto has These Strange Features on its Surface”
As the New Horizons spacecraft hurtles out towards interstellar space, it has now reached an historical milestone. On April 17, 2021, New Horizons passed 50 astronomical units, or 50 times Earth’s distance from the Sun. It is just the 5th spacecraft to reach that distance, joining the Voyagers 1 and 2 and the Pioneers 10 and 11.Continue reading “New Horizons is Now 50 Astronomical Units Away From the Sun”
We can thank NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft for opening our eyes up to Pluto’s complexity. On July 14th, 2015, the spacecraft came within 12,500 km (7,800 mi) of the dwarf planet. During the flyby, New Horizons was able to characterize Pluto’s atmosphere and its surface.
Among the things New Horizons saw was a region of snowcapped mountains.Continue reading “Pluto has Snowcapped Mountains, But Why?”
It seems unlikely that an ocean could persist on a world that never gets closer than 30 astronomical units from the Sun. But that’s the case with Pluto. Evidence shows that it has a sub-surface ocean between 100 to 180 km thick, at the boundary between the core and the mantle. Other Kuiper Belt Objects may be similar.
But time might be running out for these buried oceans, which will one day turn to ice.Continue reading “Pluto and Other Kuiper Belt Objects Started Out With Water Oceans, and Have Been Slowly Freezing Solid for Billions of Years”
When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto, studying the atmosphere was a key scientific objective. Most of what we know about the ice dwarf came from that flyby. That happened in July 2015, but it took over 15 months to send all the data home, and it’s taking even longer to analyze it.Continue reading “Astronomers Continue to Analyze Pluto’s Atmosphere”