In July of 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with Pluto. In the course of conducting its flyby, the probe gathered volumes of data about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere and system of moons. It also provided breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, mountain chains, and it’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.
Since that time, New Horizons has carried on to the Kuiper Belt for the sake of conducting more historic encounters. In preparation for these, the probe also established new records when it used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take a series of long-distance pictures. These images, which have since been released to the public, have set the new record for the most distant images ever taken.
At present, the New Horizons probe is at a distance of 6.12 billion km (3.79 billion mi) from Earth. This means that images taken at this point are at a distance of 40.9 Astronomical Units (AUs), or the equivalent of about 41 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. This it slightly farther than the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, which was snapped by the Voyager 1 mission when it was at a distance of 6.06 billion km (3.75 billion mi; 40.5 AU) from Earth.
This historic picture was taken on February 14th, 1990 (Valentine’s Day) at the behest of famed astronomer Carl Sagan. At the time, Sagan was a member of the Voyager imaging team, and he recommended that Voyager 1 take the opportunity to look back at Earth one more time before making its way to the very edge of the Solar System. For more than 27 years, this long-distance record remained unchallenged.
However, in December of 2017, the New Horizons team began conducting a routine calibration test of the LORRI instrument. This consisted of snapping pictures of the “Wishing Well” cluster (aka. the “Football Cluster” or NGC 3532), an open galactic star cluster that is located about 1321 light years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation of Carina.
This image (shown above) was rather significant, given that this star cluster was the first target ever observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (on May 20th, 1990). While this image broke the long-distance record established by Voyager 1, the probe then turned its LORRI instrument towards objects in its flight path. As part of the probes mission to rendezvous with a KBO, the team was searching for forward-scattering rings or dust.
As a result, just two hours after it had taken the record-breaking image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, the probe snapped pictures of the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) known as 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 (seen below, left and right). These images once again broke the record for being the most distant images taken from Earth (again), but also set a new record for the closest-ever images ever taken of KBOs.
“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched. And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”
As one of only five spacecraft to travel beyond the Outer Planets, New Horizons has set a number of other distance records as well. These include the most-distant course-correction maneuver, which took place on Dec. 9th, 2017, and guided the spacecraft towards its planned flyby with the KBO 2014 MU69. This event, which will happen on Jan. 1st, 2019, will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.
In the course of its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, the New Horizons team seeks to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and “Centaurs” – i.e. former KBOs that have unstable orbits that cause them to cross the orbit of the gas giants. At present, the New Horizons spacecraft is in hibernation and will be brought back online on June 4th, – when it will begin a series of checks to make sure it is ready for its planned encounter with MU69.
The spacecraft is also conducting nearly continuous measurements of the Kuiper Belt itself to learn more about its plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment. These efforts could reveal much about the formation and evolution of the Solar System, and are setting records that are not likely to be broken for many more decades!
Further Reading: NASA
While the New Horizons spacecraft was heading to Pluto, scientists from the mission used Hubble and other telescopes to try and find out more about the environment their spacecraft would be flying through. No one wanted New Horizons to run into unexpected dust or debris.
And now, as New Horizons prepares to fly past its next target, the Kuiper Belt Object known as 2014 MU69, mission scientists are using every tool at their disposal to examine this object and the surrounding region. The flyby will take place on January 1, 2019.
They’ve already uncovered some surprises.
On June 3, 2017, 2014 MU69 passed in front of a star – in an event called an occultation – providing a two-second glimpse of the object’s shadow.
More than 50 mission team members and collaborators traveled to South Africa and Argentina to catch the occultation, setting up telescopes to capture the event. They are now looking through more than 100,000 images of the occultation star that can be used to assess the environment around this Kuiper Belt object (KBO). In addition, the Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia, a space observatory of the European Space Agency (ESA) also observed the event.
The team said that while MU69 itself eluded direct detection, the June 3 data provided valuable and unexpected insights that have already helped New Horizons.
“These results are telling us something really interesting,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”
Mission scientist Simon Porter said on Twitter, “The upshot is that MU69 is probably not as big and dark as it could have been, and (more importantly) doesn’t seem to have rings or a dust cloud,” adding later that the “lack of dust was reassuring.”
Again, no one wants to New Horizons to run into any surprising dust or debris.
The team will be observing two more occultation events on July 10 and July 17, and Porter said they should get even better constraints from these next two events.
On July 10, NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will use its 100-inch (2.5-meter) telescope to probe the space around MU69 for debris that might present a hazard to New Horizons as it flies by in 18 months.
On July 17, the Hubble Space Telescope also will check for debris around MU69, while team members set up another ground-based “fence line” of small mobile telescopes along the predicted ground track of the occultation shadow in southern Argentina to try to better constrain, or even determine, the size of MU69.
Initial estimates of MU69’s diameter, based primarily on data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope since the KBO’s discovery in 2014, fall in the 12-25-mile (20-40-kilometer) range. However, the latest data from the June occultation seem to imply it’s at or even below the smallest estimated sizes.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” Stern said back in August 2015 when the target was announced. “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
Source: New Horizons
For decades, we could only imagine what the view of Pluto’s surface might be. Now, we have the real thing.
The images and data from the New Horizons’ mission flyby of Pluto in July 2015 showed us an unexpectedly stunning and geologically active world. Scientists have used words like ‘magical,’ ‘breathtaking’ and ‘scientific wonderland’ to describe the long-awaited close-up views of distant Pluto.
Even though scientists are still analyzing the data from New Horizons, ideas are starting to formulate about sending another spacecraft to Pluto, but with a long-term orbiter mission instead of a quick flyby.
“The next appropriate mission to Pluto is an orbiter, maybe equipped with a lander if we had enough funding to do both,” New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern told Universe Today in March.
This week, Stern has shared on social media that the New Horizons’ science team is meeting. But, separately, another group is starting to talk about a possible next mission to Pluto.
— AlanStern (@AlanStern) April 25, 2017
Getting a spacecraft to the outer regions of our solar system as fast as possible provides challenges, particularly in being able to slow down enough to enable going into orbit around Pluto. For the speedy and lightweight New Horizons, an orbital mission was impossible.
What propulsion system might make a Pluto orbiter and/or lander mission possible?
A few ideas are being tossed around.
Space Launch System
One concept takes advantage of NASA’s big, new Space Launch System (SLS), currently under development to enable human missions to Mars. NASA describes the SLS as “designed to be flexible and evolvable and will open new possibilities for payloads, included robotic scientific missions.” Even the first Block 1 version can launch 70 metric tons (later versions might be able to lift up to 130 metric tons.) Block 1 will be powered by twin five-segment solid rocket boosters and four liquid propellant engines, with a proposed 15% more thrust at launch than the Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the Moon.
But an orbiter mission to Pluto might not be the best use of the SLS alone.
It takes a lot of fuel to accelerate a vehicle to fast enough speed to get to Pluto in a reasonable amount of time. For example, New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched, using a souped-up Atlas V rocket with extra boosters, it performed a big burn when New Horizons departed Earth orbit. The lightweight spacecraft sped away from the Earth at 36,000 miles per hour (about 58,000 km/ hour), then used a gravity assist from Jupiter to boost New Horizons’ speed to 52,000 mph (83,600 km/h), traveling nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) a day in its 3 billion mile (4.8 billion km) journey to Pluto. The flight took nine and a half years.
“To enter Pluto orbit, a vehicle [like SLS] would have to boost up to that same speed, then turn around and decelerate for half the trip to arrive at Pluto with a net velocity of zero relative to the planet,” explained Stephen Fleming, an investor in several alt-space startups including XCOR Aerospace, Planetary Resources and NanoRacks. “Unfortunately, due to the tyranny of the rocket equation, you would have to carry all the fuel/propellant to decelerate with you at launch … which means accelerating the orbiter AND all that fuel in the initial phase. That requires logarithmically more fuel for the initial burn, and it turns out to be a LOT of fuel.”
Fleming told Universe Today that using the multi-billion dollar SLS to launch a Pluto orbiter, you would wind up launching an entire payload full of propellant just to accelerate and decelerate a tiny Pluto orbiter.
“That’s an extraordinarily expensive mission,” he said.
A better option might be to use a propulsion system of combined technologies. Stern mentioned a NASA study that looked at using the SLS as the launch vehicle and to boost the spacecraft towards Pluto, but then using an RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) powered ion engine to later brake for an orbital arrival.
An RTG produces heat from the natural decay of non-weapons-grade plutonium-238, and the heat is converted into electricity. An RTG ion engine would be a more powerful ion propulsion system than the current solar electric ion engine on the Dawn spacecraft, now orbiting Ceres, in the asteroid belt, plus it would enable operation in the outer solar system, far from the Sun. This nuclear powered ion engine would enable a speeding spacecraft to slow down and go into orbit.
“The SLS would boost you to fly out to Pluto,” Stern said, “and it would actually take two years to do the braking with ion propulsion.”
Stern said the flight time for such a mission to Pluto would be seven and a half years, two years faster than New Horizons.
But the most exciting option might be a proposed Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander mission currently under a Phase 1 study in NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC).
The proposal uses a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) engine that has propulsion and power in one integrated device. DFD provides high thrust to allow for a flight time of about 4 years to Pluto, plus being able to send substantial mass to orbit, perhaps between 1000 to 8000 kg.
DFD is based on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor that has been under development for 15 years at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
If this propulsion system works as planned, it could launch a Pluto orbiter and a lander (or possibly a rover), and provide enough power to maintain an orbiter and all its instruments, as well as beam a lot of power to a lander. That would enable the surface vehicle to beam back video to the orbiter because it would have so much power, according to Stephanie Thomas from Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc., who is leading the NIAC study.
“Our concept is generally received as, ‘wow, that sounds really cool! When can I get one?’” Thomas told Universe Today. She said her and her team chose a prototype Pluto orbiter and lander mission in their proposal because it’s a great example of what can be done with a fusion rocket.
Their fusion system uses a small linear array of solenoid coils, and their fuel of choice is deuterium helium 3, which has very low neutron production.
“It fits on a spacecraft, it fits on a launch vehicle,” Thomas explained in a NIAC symposium talk (her talk starts about 17:30 in the linked video). “There’s no lithium, or other dangerous materials, it produces very few damaging particles. It’s about the size of a minivan or small truck. Our system is cheaper and faster to develop than other fusion proposals.”
The Princeton team has been able to produce 300 millisecond pulses with their plasma heating experiment, orders of magnitude better than any other system.
“The biggest hurdle is the fusion itself,” she said. “We need to build a bigger experiment to finish proving the new heating method, which will require an order of magnitude more resources than the project has been receiving from the Department of Energy so far,” Thomas said via email. “However, it’s still small in the grand scheme of advanced technology projects, about $50 million.”
Thomas said that DARPA has spent much more on many technology initiatives that ended up canceled. And it’s also much less than other fusion technologies require for the same stage of research, since our machine is so small and has a simple coil configuration.” (Thomas said have a look at the budget for ITER, the international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject, currently running over $20 billion).
“To put it simply, we know our method heats electrons really well and can extrapolate to heating ions, but we need to build it and prove it,” she said.
Thomas and her team are currently working on the “balance of plant” technology – the subsystems that will be required to operate the engine in space, assuming the heating method works as currently predicted.
In terms of the Pluto mission itself, Thomas said there aren’t any particular hurdles on the orbiter itself, but it would involve scaling up a few technologies to take advantage of the very large amount of power available, such as the optical communications.
“We could dedicate tens or more kW of power to the communication laser, not 10 watts, [like current missions]” she said. “Another unique feature of our concept is being able to beam a lot of power to a lander. This would enable new classes of planetary science instruments like powerful drills. The technology to do this exists but the specific instruments need to be designed and built. Additional technology that will be needed that is under development in various industries are lightweight space radiators, next-generation superconducting wires, and long-term cryogenic storage for the deuterium fuel.”
Thomas said their NIAC research is going well.
“We were selected for the NIAC Phase II study, and are in contract negotiations now,” she said. “We are busy working on higher fidelity models of the engine’s thrust, designing components of the trajectory, and sizing the various subsystems, including the superconducting coils,” she said. “Our current estimates are that a single 1 to 10 MW engine will produce between 5 and 50 N thrust, at about 10,000 sec specific impulse.”
Laser Zapping to Pluto
Another futuristic propulsion possibility is the laser-based systems proposed by Yuri Milner for his Breakthrough Starshot proposal, where small cubesats could be zapped by lasers on Earth, basically “bug zapping” spacecraft to reach incredible speeds (possibly millions of miles/km per hour) to visit the outer solar system or beyond.
“It’s not really in the cards for us to use this kind of technology, because we’d have to wait decades just for this to be developed,” Stern said. “But if you could send lightweight, inexpensive spacecraft at speeds like one-10th the speed of light based on lasers from Earth. We could send these small spacecraft to hundreds or thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belts, and you’d be out there in a matter of two-and-a-half days. You could send a spacecraft past Pluto every day. That would be really game changing.”
The Realistic Future
But even if everyone agrees a Pluto orbiter should be done, the earliest possible date for such a mission is sometime between the early 2020s and the early 2030s. But it all depends on the recommendations put forth by the scientific community’s next decadal survey, which will suggest the most top-priority missions for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
These Decadal Surveys are 10-year “roadmaps” that set science priorities and provide guidance on where NASA should send spacecraft and what types of missions they should be. The last Decadal Survey was published in 2011, and that set planetary science priorities through 2022. The next one, for 2023-2034, will likely be published in 2022.
The New Horizons mission was the result of the suggestions from the 2003 planetary science Decadal Survey, where scientists said visiting the Pluto system and worlds beyond was a top-priority destination.
So, if you’re dreaming of a Pluto orbiter, keep talking about it.
Many of the rocket and space flight enthusiasts I know are also car buffs. If you fit into that category, here’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss: a chance to own the car that New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern drove all the way to Pluto.
Well, technically, he drove his shiny red Nissan 350Z the entire time the New Horizons’ spacecraft was making a beeline for the icy dwarf planet. But Stern has now donated this car to the Lowell Observatory, the facility where Pluto was discovered. The car is being auctioned off on eBay, with proceeds going to support “Lowell’s mission of scientific research and education.” You can make your bid now, as bids are being accepted from December 15-24, and the winner will not only have the privilege of owning the car, but also enjoy a dinner with Stern.
Stern bought the car in 2006, the year New Horizons launched (it has a bumper sticker that says “My other vehicle is on its way to Pluto”) and he continued driving it until earlier this year, well past the spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto in July 2015.
It is a two-door model with red exterior and carbon interior, and has just over 77,000 miles on it, which, as Stern points out, is almost 10 times fewer miles than New Horizons clocked on its first day of flight. A November 9, 2016 appraisal states the vehicle is in excellent shape and has a life expectancy of 300,000 miles.
“It was Percival Lowell’s perseverance and dedication that resulted in the discovery of Pluto and, ultimately, resulted in the flight of New Horizons to explore this distant, small planet,” Stern said in a press release from the Lowell Observatory. “New Horizons was, and is, the best aspect of my career so far, so I wanted to donate this car to Lowell Observatory as a fundraising vehicle to recognize the fact that New Horizons could not have happened without the historic and pioneering work that took place at Lowell Observatory early in the last century.”
Stern was the impetus behind New Horizons, billed as the fastest spacecraft ever launched, so he calls the Nissan 350Z his “second fastest vehicle.” He still oversees the New Horizons mission, as the spacecraft continues on its journey through the Kuiper Belt. It will fly past another object, named 2014 MU69, which Stern said is an ancient KBO that formed where it orbits now.
“It’s the type of object scientists have been hoping to study for decades, and this will be the most distant world we’ve ever been able to see up close,” Stern told me during an interview for my upcoming book, “Incredible Stories From Space.” Chapter 1 tells the stories of the New Horizons mission, including many stories from Stern.
With a penchant for both creating and driving state-of-the-art vehicles, Stern revealed earlier this year that his new car is a Tesla.
Lowell director Jeff Hall said, “It’s been a real pleasure working with Alan over the past few years leading up to and past the Pluto flyby. He’s been tremendously supportive of Lowell, and his donation of his car for us to auction is a sterling example of this. We’re thrilled by this gesture, and we look forward to meeting the lucky winner.”
The Lowell Observatory was founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell and has been home to many important discoveries including the detection of the large recessional velocities (redshift) of galaxies by Vesto Slipher in 1912-1914 (a result that led to the realization the universe is expanding), and the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Today, Lowell’s 14 astronomers use ground-based telescopes around the world, telescopes in space, and NASA planetary spacecraft to conduct research in astronomy and planetary science. Lowell is a private, non-profit research institution and is located near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Finally, the New Horizons team has their entire “pot of gold.” 15 months after the mission’s flyby of the Pluto system, the final bits of science data from the historic July 2015 event has been safely transmitted to Earth.
“The New Horizons mission has required patience for many years, but we knew the results would be well worth the wait,” New Horizons project scientists Hal Weaver told me earlier this year.
Because of New Horizons’ great distance from Earth and the spacecraft’s low power output (the spacecraft runs on just 2-10 watts of electricity), it has a relatively low ‘downlink’ rate at which data can be transmitted to Earth, just 1-4 kilobits per second. That’s why it has taken so long to get all the science data back to Earth.
“This is what we came for – these images, spectra and other data types that are going to help us understand the origin and the evolution of the Pluto system for the first time,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said a few months ago during an interview. “We’re seeing that Pluto is a scientific wonderland. The images have been just magical. It’s breathtaking.”
Because it was a flyby, and the spacecraft had just one chance at gathering data from Pluto, New Horizons was designed to gather as much data as it could, as quickly as it could – taking about 100 times more data on close approach to Pluto and its moons than it could have sent home before flying onward. The spacecraft was programmed to send select, high-priority datasets home in the days just before and after close approach, and began returning the vast amount of remaining stored data in September 2015.
New Horizons is now over 3.1 billion miles (5 billion km) away from Earth as it continues its journey through the Kuiper Belt. That translates to a current radio signal delay time of five hours, eight minutes at light speed.
The science team created special software to keep track of all the data sets and schedule when they would be returned to Earth.
The final item that was received was a portion of a Pluto-Charon observation sequence taken by the Ralph/LEISA imager. It arrived at New Horizons’ mission operations at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, at 5:48 a.m. EDT on Oct. 25. The downlink came via NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia. It was the last of the 50-plus total gigabits of Pluto system data transmitted to Earth by New Horizons over the past 15 months.
“We have our pot of gold,” said Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, of APL.
Bowman also said the team will conduct a final data-verification review of New Horizons two onboard recorders before sending commands to erase all the data on the spacecraft. New Horizons has more work to do, so erasing the “old” data will clear space for new data to be taken during its Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM). The spacecraft will do a series of distant Kuiper Belt object observations as well as perform a close encounter flyby with with a small Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019.
“There’s a great deal of work ahead for us to understand the 400-plus scientific observations that have all been sent to Earth,” said Stern. “And that’s exactly what we’re going to do—after all, who knows when the next data from a spacecraft visiting Pluto will be sent?”
You can see all of New Horizons images at the New Horizons/APL website.
By the end of this week, all the data gathered by the New Horizons spacecraft during its July 2015 flyby of the Pluto system will have finished downloading to Earth and be in the hands of the science team. Bonnie Buratti, a science team co-investigator said they have gone from being able to look at the pretty pictures to doing the hard work required to study the data. During today’s press briefing from the Division of Planetary Sciences conference, the New Horizons team shared a few interesting and curious findings they’ve found in the data so far.
While the famous global view of Pluto appears to show a cloud-free dwarf planet, Principal investigator Alan Stern said the team has now take a closer look and found handful of potential clouds in images taken with New Horizons’ cameras.
“Clouds are common in the atmospheres of the solar system,” Stern said during the briefing, “ and a natural question was whether Pluto, with a nitrogen atmosphere, has any clouds.”
Stern said they’ve known since flyby that Pluto has haze layers, as seen in the backlit lead image above, as New Horizons flew away from Pluto. “They stretch more than 200 km into the sky, and we’ve counted over two dozen concentric layers,” he said.
While hazes are not clouds, Stern said they have identified candidates for clouds in high-phase images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera.
“The seven candidates are all similar in that they are very low altitude,” Stern said, and they are all low-lying, isolated small features, so no broad cloud decks or fields. When we map them over the surface, they all lie near the terminator, so they occur near dawn or dusk. This is all suggestive they are clouds because low-lying regions and dawn or dusk provide cooler conditions where clouds may occur.”
Stern told Universe Today that these possible, rare condensation clouds could be made of ethane, acetylene, hydrogen cyanide or methane under the right conditions. Stern added these clouds are probably short-lived phenomena – again, likely occurring only at dawn or dusk. A day on Pluto is 6.4 days on Earth.
“But if there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” Stern said.
Disappointingly, the New Horizons team has no way of confirming if these are clouds or not. “None of them can be confirmed as clouds because they are very low lying and we don’t have stereo images to tell us more,” Stern said, adding that the only way to confirm if there are condensation clouds on Pluto would be to return with an orbiter mission.
Landslides on Charon
While Pluto shows many kinds of activity, one surface process scientists haven’t seen on the dwarf planet is landslides. Surprisingly, though, they have been spotted on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.
“We’ve seen similar landslides on other rocky and icy planets, such as Mars and Saturn’s moon Iapetus, but these are the first landslides we’ve seen this far from the sun, in the Kuiper Belt,” said Ross Beyer, a science team researcher from Sagan Center at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center, California. “The big question is will they be detected elsewhere in the Kuiper Belt?”
Long runout landslides seen on Charon’s Serenity Chasm shows a 200-meter thick lobate landslide that runs up against a 6 km high ridge.
“With our images, we can just resolve a smooth apron and the deposit as a whole,” said Beyer, “we can’t see individual grains. But given the cold conditions on Charon, the deposit likely made of boulders of ice and rock.”
Beyer said earthquakes or an impact could have jump started the landslide on regions that were ready to slide. “The boulders may have melted and the edges and got slippery enough to begin to slide down the slope,” he said.
The images of Serenity Chasma were taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 48,912 miles (78,717 kilometers).
Beyer added that while Pluto doesn’t have landslides, it does have material that appears to be moving downhill as rock falls and glacier-like flows.
Bright and active
New Horizons data shows that portions of Pluto’s large heart-shaped region, Sputnik Planitia, are among the most reflective in the solar system. “That brightness indicates surface activity,” said Buratti, “similar to how Saturn’s moon Enceladus is very reflective, about 100% reflective, and is very active with plumes and geysers. Because we see a pattern of high surface reflectivity equating to activity, we can infer that the dwarf planet Eris, which is known to be highly reflective, is also likely to be active.”
New Horizons is now making a beeline for its next target, KBO 2014 MU69. Cameras on the New Horizons spacecraft have been taking long range images and MU69 is the smallest KBO to have its color measured: it has a reddish tint. Scientists have used that data to confirm this object is part of the so-called cold classical region of the Kuiper Belt, which is believed to contain some of the oldest, most prehistoric material in the solar system.
“The reddish color tells us the type of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 is,” said Amanda Zangari, a New Horizons post-doctoral researcher from Southwest Research Institute. “The data confirms that on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.”
Zangari added that they will be using the Hubble Space Telescope to better understand MU69.
“We would like to use Hubble to its find rotation rate and better understand its shape, as far as planning,” she said. “We would like to know ahead of time, if it is oblong, we would like to fly when the longest point is facing the telescope.”
Several times during the briefing, Stern indicated how having a future mission that orbited Pluto would answer so many outstanding questions the team has. He outlined one potential mission that is in the very earliest stages of study where a spacecraft could be launched on NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) and the spacecraft could have an RTG-powered ion engine that would allow a fast-moving spacecraft the ability to slow down and go into orbit (unlike New Horizons). This type of architecture would allow for a flight time of 7.5 years to Pluto, quicker than New Horizons’ nearly 9.5 years.
What lies beneath Pluto’s icy heart? New research indicates there could be a salty “Dead Sea”-like ocean more than 100 kilometers thick.
“Thermal models of Pluto’s interior and tectonic evidence found on the surface suggest that an ocean may exist, but it’s not easy to infer its size or anything else about it,” said Brandon Johnson from Brown University. “We’ve been able to put some constraints on its thickness and get some clues about composition.”
Research by Johnson and his team focused Pluto’s “heart” – a region informally called Sputnik Planum, which was photographed by the New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby of Pluto in July of 2015.
New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern called Sputnik Planum “one of the most amazing geological discoveries in 50-plus years of planetary exploration,” and previous research showed the region appears to be constantly renewed by current-day ice convection.
The heart is a 900 km wide basin — bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined — and at least the western half of it appears to have been formed by an impact, likely by an object 200 kilometers across or larger.
Johnson and colleagues Timothy Bowling of the University of Chicago and Alexander Trowbridge and Andrew Freed from Purdue University modeled the impact dynamics that created a massive crater on Pluto’s surface and also looked at the dynamics between Pluto and its moon Charon.
The two are tidally locked with each other, meaning they always show each other the same face as they rotate. Sputnik Planum sits directly on the tidal axis linking the two worlds. That position suggests that the basin has what’s called a positive mass anomaly — it has more mass than average for Pluto’s icy crust. As Charon’s gravity pulls on Pluto, it would pull proportionally more on areas of higher mass, which would tilt the planet until Sputnik Planum became aligned with the tidal axis.
So instead of being a hole in the ground, the crater actually has been filled back in. Part of it has been filled in by the convecting nitrogen ice. While that ice layer adds some mass to the basin, it isn’t thick enough on its own to make Sputnik Planum have positive mass.
The rest of that mass, Johnson said, may be generated by a liquid lurking beneath the surface.
Johnson and his team explained it like this:
Like a bowling ball dropped on a trampoline, a large impact creates a dent on a planet’s surface, followed by a rebound. That rebound pulls material upward from deep in the planet’s interior. If that upwelled material is denser than what was blasted away by the impact, the crater ends up with the same mass as it had before the impact happened. This is a phenomenon geologists refer to as isostatic compensation.
Water is denser than ice. So if there were a layer of liquid water beneath Pluto’s ice shell, it may have welled up following the Sputnik Planum impact, evening out the crater’s mass. If the basin started out with neutral mass, then the nitrogen layer deposited later would be enough to create a positive mass anomaly.
“This scenario requires a liquid ocean,” Johnson said. “We wanted to run computer models of the impact to see if this is something that would actually happen. What we found is that the production of a positive mass anomaly is actually quite sensitive to how thick the ocean layer is. It’s also sensitive to how salty the ocean is, because the salt content affects the density of the water.”
The models simulated the impact of an object large enough to create a basin of Sputnik Planum’s size hitting Pluto at a speed expected for that part in the solar system. The simulation assumed various thicknesses of the water layer beneath the crust, from no water at all to a layer 200 kilometers thick.
The scenario that best reconstructed Sputnik Planum’s observed size depth, while also producing a crater with compensated mass, was one in which Pluto has an ocean layer more than 100 kilometers thick, with a salinity of around 30 percent.
“What this tells us is that if Sputnik Planum is indeed a positive mass anomaly —and it appears as though it is — this ocean layer of at least 100 kilometers has to be there,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty amazing to me that you have this body so far out in the solar system that still may have liquid water.”
Johnson he and other researchers will continue study the data sent back by New Horizons to get a clearer picture Pluto’s intriguing interior and possible ocean.
“X” marks the spot that’s illustrative of “convective churning” resulting from subsurface planetary heating, as seen in a fascinating new super high resolution image received from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2015. Its situated at the very center of the left ventricle of Pluto’s huge “heart” – an icy flow plain that’s informally named “Sputnik Planum.”
The “X” feature – see image above – is located in an area of intersecting cells, shaped like polygons, on the plains of “Sputnik Planum” which are mostly comprised of frozen nitrogen ices.
Ice Volcanoes on Pluto?
The informally named feature Wright Mons, located south of Sputnik Planum on Pluto, is an unusual feature that’s about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high. It displays a summit depression (visible in the center of the image) that’s approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across, with a distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing. New Horizons scientists believe that this mountain and another, Piccard Mons, could have been formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute[/caption]
The possible discovery of a pair of recently erupting ice volcanoes on Pluto are among the unexpected “astounding” findings just unveiled by perplexed scientists with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, barely four months after the historic first flyby of the last unexplored planet in our solar system.
“Nothing like this has been seen in the deep outer solar system,” said Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader from NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, as the results so far were announced at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) this week in National Harbor, Maryland.
“The Pluto system is baffling us,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, at a news media briefing on Nov. 9.
Two large mountainous features tens of miles across and several miles high, have been potentially identified by the team as volcanoes.
They were found in terrain located south of Sputnik Planum – a vast area of smooth icy plains located within Pluto’s huge heart shaped region informally known as Tombaugh Regio. It may have formed very recently resulting from geologic activity within the past 10 million years.
The possible ice volcanoes, or cryovolcanoes, were found at two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains and identified from images taken by New Horizons as it became Earth’s first emissary to hurtle past the small planet on July 14, 2015.
“All of our flyby plans succeeded,” Stern stated at the briefing.
“All of the data sets are spectacular.
Scientists created 3-D topographic maps from the probes images and discovered the possible ice volcanoes – informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons.
Wright Mons, pictured above, is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high.
Both mountains appear to show summit depressions “with a large hole” visible in the center, similar to volcanoes on Earth. Scientists speculate “they may have formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface.”
The erupting Plutonian ices might be composed of a melted slurry of water ice, nitrogen, ammonia and methane.
The depression inside Wright Mons is approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across and exhibits a “distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing.”
“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing—a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA Ames, in a statement.
The team is quick to caution that the “interpretation of these features as volcanoes is tentative” and requires much more analysis.
“If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have travelled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.”
More than 50 papers about the Pluto system are being presented at the AAS meeting this week.
So far New Horizon has transmitted back only about 20 percent of the data gathered, according to mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system,” said Stern.
“Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”
The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.
Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap for a long time to come.
With 20 percent of the data now returned and more streaming back every day, the team is excited to debate what is all means.
“This is when the debates begin,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters, at the missions Nov 9 media briefing. “This is when the heated discussions begin. This is when the entire science community starts staying up throughout the night.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.