Pluto’s ‘Heart’ Revealed as New Horizons Probe Starts Flyby Campaign: 5 Days Out

The Huge Heart of Pluto
Pluto’s “Heart” is seen in this new image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) received on July 8, 2015 after normal science operations resumed following the scary July 4 safe mode anomaly that briefing shut down all science operations. It shows ‘the heart and the whale’ along Pluto’s equator. The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Story updated[/caption]

Emotions are rising exponentially with the rousing revelation that Pluto has a huge ‘Heart’ as revealed in stunning new imagery received just today (July 8) from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – which has also officially started its intensive flyby campaign merely 5 days out from humanity’s history making first encounter with the last unexplored planet in our Solar System on Tuesday, July 14.

Notably, today’s image showing Pluto’s ‘heart-shaped’ surface feature proves that New Horizons is now fully back in business following the nail-biting July 4 weekend anomaly that unexpectedly sent the probe into a protective status known as ‘safe mode’ and simultaneously sent mission engineers and scientists scurrying to their computer screens to resolve the scary issues and recover the probe back to full operation – just in the nick of time.

The intriguing ‘heart’ is the brightest area on Pluto and “may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost—perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide—form a bright coating,” say mission scientists.

While in ‘safe mode’ all science operations were temporarily halted for nearly three days as the spacecraft inexorably zooms towards mysterious Pluto and its quintet of moons for our first up close reconnaissance of the frigid world and the Kuiper Belt.

Read my earlier story from July 6 here detailing how the science team and NASA resolved the July 4 anomaly and restored New Horizons to normal operations with little time to spare for its one time only flyby of the other ‘Red Planet’.

The close encounter sequence last for 9 days and it will take 16 months to relay back the vast quantity of data to be collected.

The view of Pluto’s ‘Heart’ was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) when the spacecraft was just under 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) from Pluto, and is the first to be received back on Earth since the anxiety rush caused by the July 4 anomaly.

The heart covers nearly half of Pluto’s now well resolved disk.

Right beside the large heart-shaped bright area, which measures some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) across, is another enigmatic and elongated equatorial surface on the left side informally dubbed ‘the whale.’

Mission scientists say ‘the whale’ is one of the darkest regions visible to New Horizons and it measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in diameter, making it about 50% wider that the ‘heart.’

Above ‘the whale and the heart’ lies Pluto’s polar region that images show is intermediate in brightness.

NASA also released another perspective view of ‘the whale and the heart’ as seen below.

‘The whale and the heart of Pluto.’  This map of Pluto, made from images taken by the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows a wide array of bright and dark markings of varying sizes and shapes. Perhaps most intriguing is the fact that all of the darkest material on the surface lies along Pluto’s equator. The color version was created from lower-resolution color data from the spacecraft’s Ralph instrument.  Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
‘The whale and the heart of Pluto.’
This map of Pluto, made from images taken by the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows a wide array of bright and dark markings of varying sizes and shapes. Perhaps most intriguing is the fact that all of the darkest material on the surface lies along Pluto’s equator. The color version was created from lower-resolution color data from the spacecraft’s Ralph instrument. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Be sure to keep this entire area in mind – as if your appetites haven’t been whetted enough already – because “this view is centered roughly on the area that will be seen close-up during New Horizons’ July 14 closest approach,” says NASA.

“The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today,” said Jeff Moore, Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team Leader of NASA’s Ames Research Center, in a statement. “It will be incredible!”

With barely 5 days to go until the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fast flyby encounter of the ever intriguing binary planet traveling at the far flung reaches of the solar system, last minute glitches are the last thing anyone needs.

Why? Because there are no second chances as New Horizons barrels towards the Pluto system at approximately 30,000 miles per hour (over 48,000 kilometers per hour), which forms a binary planet with its largest known moon – Charon.

“The New Horizons spacecraft and science payload are now operating flawlessly,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, announced at the July 6 post anomaly media briefing.

The nature of Pluto’s features that may appear to resemble craters or volcanoes is not yet known.

“We should be very cautious in interpreting these features,” Stern told Universe Today.

Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015. Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015. Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,750 miles) of Pluto’s surface and about 17,900 miles (28,800 kilometers) from Charon during closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14.

TThe probe was launched back on Jan. 19, 2006 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on a 9 year voyage of over 3.6 billion miles (5.7 billion km).

“We are on our way to Pluto!” exclaimed Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, at the July 6 news media briefing. “It’s really a historic time, fraught with many decisions and challenges on the way to the July 14 Pluto system encounter.”

“With Pluto in our sights, we’re going for the gold.”

Facts about Pluto. Credit: NASA
Facts about Pluto. Credit: NASA

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

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

Ken Kremer

This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

New Horizons Exits Safe Mode, Operating Flawlessly for Upcoming Pluto Encounter

Latest color image of Pluto taken on July 3, 2015 shows 4 mysterious dark spots.
Best yet image of Pluto was taken by the LORRI imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 3, 2015 at a distance of 7.8 million mi (12.5 million km), just prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Color data taken from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Story updated[/caption]

Despite some hair-raising and unplanned 4th of July fireworks of sorts in deep space which caused NASA’s Pluto bound New Horizons spacecraft to enter “safe mode” due to a computer glitch and temporarily halt all science operations over the weekend, the spacecraft is now fully back on track, “healthy” and working “flawlessly” and set to resume all planned research investigations on Tuesday, July 7, NASA and top mission managers announced at a media briefing held this afternoon, Monday, July 6.

It’s now just exactly one week before the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fast flyby encounter of the ever intriguing binary planet, at the far flung reaches of the solar system. And the great news could not come soon enough given the proximity of the flyby.

“The spacecraft is in excellent health and back in operation. New Horizons is barreling towards the Pluto system,” stated Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, at the start of today’s news media briefing.

The $700 million mission remains on track to conduct the complex close flyby science sequence in its entirety, as planned over the next week, including the July 14 flyby of Pluto, despite the scary safe mode episode.

“The New Horizons spacecraft and science payload are now operating flawlessly,” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, announced at the media briefing.

NASA unexpectedly lost contact with the New Horizons spacecraft on Saturday, July 4, at about 1:30 p.m. EDT after it suffered a memory related software anomaly and executed a protective operation known as “safe mode.” An anomaly investigation team was formed immediately.

“It’s really a historic time, but also fraught with many decisions and challenges on the way to the July 14 Pluto system encounter,” Green said.

The mission team quickly worked to reestablish contact with the piano shaped spacecraft about 90 minutes after the signal was lost.

“On Saturday we lost contact with the spacecraft. The New Horizons team immediately went into action. Within 90 minutes the signal was reacquired by the team, with the spacecraft in safe mode. They soon found the root cause and corrective actions were immediately taken to get the spacecraft back in business.”

The team worked tirelessly and diligently day and night over the holiday weekend to recover New Horizons back to full operation quickly and in time for the flyby encounter of Pluto on July 14, set for approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14, said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland.

There are no second chances.

This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This trio of images are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The software glitch occurred a day after new operating software was uploaded to New Horizons last Friday.

The spacecraft was trying to do two things at once on Saturday, compressing science data and writing command sequences while using up too much flash memory, explained Fountain.

“The computer was trying to do these two things at the same time, and the two were more than the processor could handle,” Fountain said.

“So the processor said ‘I’m overloaded.’ Then the spacecraft did exactly what it was supposed to do. It then switched to the backup computer and went into safe mode. At that point, we lost the downlink from the primary computer. We realized quickly what happened and put a recovery plan in place and recovered.”

Artist view of New Horizons passing Pluto and three of its moons. The ship is about the size of a grand piano and kept warm in the cold of the outer Solar System by  heat release from the radioactive decay of plutonium within the probe's RTGs (Radioisotope  Thermoelectric Generator). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Artist view of New Horizons passing Pluto and three of its moons. The ship is about the size of a grand piano and kept warm in the cold of the outer Solar System by heat release from the radioactive decay of plutonium within the probe’s RTGs (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

At this moment New Horizons is about 3 billion miles (4.9 billion km) from Earth and less than 6 million miles (9 million km) away from unmasking the secrets of tantalizing Pluto, Charon, its largest moon with which it forms a double planet system, and its four tiny and recently discovered moons. Charon is half the size of Pluto.

The round trip time for signals traveling at the speed of light is 8.5 hours. So it’s a very long time before commands from Earth can reach the spacecraft and for the team to determine their outcome. So the probe has to be able to operate on its own without direction from Earth during the intense and brief flyby period.

Pluto is the most distant and last unexplored planet in our Solar System, and therefore presents enormous complexities to those bold enough to dare the mightiest things.

“We expect a nominal flyby of Pluto from every indication now,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, announced at the media briefing.

“This object is unlike any other that we have observed,” Stern said. “Both Pluto and Charon are already surprising us.”

Less than 1 percent of the planned data was lost in the three days that the science instruments were shut off.

“It’s more important to focus on the later science during the flyby,” Stern elaborated.

“There is zero impact to the primary Group 1 highest-priority science objectives. And a minor impact to Group 2 and Group 3 objectives,” Stern elaborated.

“This is a speed bump in terms of the total return that we expect from this flyby.”

“I’m pleased that our mission team quickly identified the problem and assured the health of the spacecraft,” noted Green. “Now, with Pluto in our sights, we’re on the verge of returning to normal operations and going for the gold.”

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
New Horizons trajectory map to Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The team said this type of software update will not be repeated and a similar type safe mode event should not recur.

Fountain said that during the encounter period, the probe can switch itself to exit safe mode event within about 7 minutes, depending on the situation, and minimize any science data losses.

New Horizons will swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,800 miles) of Pluto’s surface.

It will zoom past Pluto at speeds of some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour).

Today the team also released the best yet images of Pluto that were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The trio of images were between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode.

The images show varying and enigmatic surface features on the different hemispheres of Pluto.

They also show the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the scientists and the world.

Their nature remains unknown at this time.

The probe was launched back in 2006 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

“We are on our way to Pluto!” Green exclaimed.

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

Ken Kremer

Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:
Animation of Pluto rotating from photos taken by New Horizons two weeks before the flyby. Credit:

New Horizons Spacecraft ‘Stays the Course’ for Pluto System Encounter

Following an intense 18 month study to determine if NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft faced potentially destructive impact hazards during its planned 2015 flyby of the Pluto binary planet system, the mission team has decided to ‘stay the course’ – and stick with the originally planned trajectory because the danger posed by dust and debris is much less than feared.

The impact assessment study was conducted because the Pluto system was discovered to be much more complex – and thus even more scientifically compelling – after New Horizons was launched in January 2006 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Two years ago researchers using the iconic Hubble Space Telescope discovered two new moons orbiting around Pluto, bringing the total to 5 moons!

It was feared that debris hitting the moons could have created dangerous dust clouds that in turn would slam into and damage the spacecraft as it zoomed past Pluto at speeds of some 30,000 miles per hour (more than 48,000 kilometers per hour) in July 2015.

“We found that loss of the New Horizons mission by dust impacting the spacecraft is very unlikely, and we expect to follow the nominal, or baseline, mission timeline that we’ve been refining over the past few years,” says New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement.

After both the team and an independent review board and NASA thoroughly analyzed the data, it was determined that New Horizons has only a 0.3 percent chance of suffering a mission destroying dust impact event using the baseline trajectory.

Hubble Space Telescope view of Pluto and its known moons.
Hubble Space Telescope view of Pluto and its known moons.

The 0.3 percent probability of mission loss is far less than some earlier estimates.

This is really good news because the team can focus most of its efforts on developing the flyby encounter science plan when New Horizons swoops to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,800 miles) of Pluto’s surface.

Pluto forms a “double planet” system with Charon, its largest moon. Charon is half the size of Pluto.

But the team will still expend some effort on developing alternative trajectories – known as SHBOTs, short for Safe Haven by Other Trajectories, just in case new information arises from the ships camera observations that would force a change in plans as New Horizons sails ever closer to Pluto.

“Still, we’ll be ready with two alternative timelines, in the event that the impact risk turns out to be greater than we think,” says Weaver.

Indeed the team, led by Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute is finalizing the encounter plan this month and plans a rehearsal in July of the most critical nine-day segment of the baseline flyby trajectory.

New Horizons will perform the first reconnaissance of Pluto and Charon in July 2015. The “double planet” is the last planet in our solar system to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

And New Horizons doesn’t’ stop at Pluto. The goal is to explore one or more of the icy Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO’s) further out in the Solar System.

The team will use the Pluto flyby to redirect New Horizons to a KBO that is yet to be identified.

And don’t forget to “Send Your Name to Mars” aboard NASA’s MAVEN orbiter- details here. Deadline: July 1, 2013. Launch: Nov. 18, 2013

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Pluto, Mars, Curiosity, Opportunity, MAVEN, LADEE and NASA missions at Ken’s upcoming lecture presentations

June 23: “Send your Name to Mars on MAVEN” and “CIBER Astro Sat, LADEE Lunar & Antares Rocket Launches from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, 8 PM