New Horizons Snaps Amazing 3-D View of Pluto’s Mysterious ‘Bladed’ Terrain

The amazing stereo view of a broad area informally named Tartarus Dorsa combines two images from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) taken about 14 minutes apart on July 14, 2015. The first was taken when New Horizons was 16,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, the second when the spacecraft was 10,000 miles (about 17,000 kilometers) away.   Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The amazing stereo view of a broad area informally named Tartarus Dorsa combines two images from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) taken about 14 minutes apart on July 14, 2015. The first was taken when New Horizons was 16,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, the second when the spacecraft was 10,000 miles (about 17,000 kilometers) away. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It’s time to whip out your 3-D glasses to enjoy and scrutinize the remarkable detail of spectacular terrain revealed in a new high resolution stereo image of Pluto – King of the Kuiper Belt! – taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

The amazing new stereo Plutonian image focuses on an area dominated by a mysterious feature that geologists call ‘bladed’ terrain – seen above – and its unlike anything seen elsewhere in our solar system.

Its located in a broad region of rough highlands informally known as Tartarus Dorsa – situated to the east of the Pluto’s huge heart shaped feature called Tombaugh Regio. The best resolution is approximately 1,000 feet (310 meters).

The stereo view combines a pair of images captured by New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) science instruments. They were taken about 14 minutes apart on during history making first ever flyby of the Pluto planetary system on July 14, 2015.

The first was taken when New Horizons was 16,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, the second when the spacecraft was 10,000 miles (about 17,000 kilometers) away.

The blades align from north to south, typically reach up to about 550 yards (500 meters) high and are spaced about 2-4 miles (3-5 kilometers). Thus they are among the planets steepest features. They are “perched on a much broader set of rounded ridges that are separated by flat valley floors,” according to descriptions from the New Horizons science team.

This color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).   Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Mission scientists have also noted that the bladed terrain has the texture of “snakeskin” owing to their “scaly raised relief.”

In the companion global image from NASA (below), the bladed terrain is outlined in red and shown to extend quite far to the east of Tombaugh Regio.

The composite image was taken on July 13, 2015, the day before the closest approach flyby, when the probe was farther away thus shows lower resolution. It combines a pair of images from two of the science instruments – a Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color scan and an image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).

This global view of Pluto combines a Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color scan and an image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), both obtained on July 13, 2015 – the day before New Horizons’ closest approach. The red outline marks the large area of mysterious, bladed terrain extending from the eastern section of the large feature informally named Tombaugh Regio.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This global view of Pluto combines a Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color scan and an image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), both obtained on July 13, 2015 – the day before New Horizons’ closest approach. The red outline marks the large area of mysterious, bladed terrain extending from the eastern section of the large feature informally named Tombaugh Regio.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The MVIC scan was taken from a range of 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers), at a resolution of 20 miles (32 kilometers) per pixel. The corresponding LORRI image was obtained from roughly the same range, but has a higher spatial resolution of 5 miles (8 kilometers) per pixel, say officials.

Scientists have developed several possible theories about the origins of the bladed terrain, including erosion from evaporating ices or deposition of methane ices.

Measurements from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument reveal that that this region “is composed of methane (CH4) ice with a smattering of water,” reports New Horizons researcher Orkan Umurhan.

He speculates that “the material making up the bladed terrain is a methane clathrate. A clathrate is a structure in which a primary molecular species (say water, or H2O) forms a crystalline ‘cage’ to contain a guest molecule (methane or CH4, for example).”

But the question of whether that methane ice is strong enough to maintain the steep walled snakeskin features, will take much more research to determine a conclusive answer.

Umurhan suggests that more research could help determine if the “methane clathrates in the icy moons of the outer solar system and also in the Kuiper Belt were formed way back before the solar system formed – i.e., within the protosolar nebula – potentially making them probably some of the oldest materials in our solar system.”

Pluto continues to amaze and surprise us as the data streams back to eagerly waiting scientists on Earth over many more months to come – followed by years and decades of painstaking analysis.

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

During New Horizons flyby on July 14, 2015, it discovered that Pluto is the biggest object in the outer solar system and thus the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt.”

The Kuiper Belt comprises the third and outermost region of worlds in our solar system.

Pluto is the last planet in our solar system to be visited in the initial reconnaissance of planets by spacecraft from Earth since the dawn of the Space Age.

New Horizons remains on target to fly by a second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019 – tentatively named PT1, for Potential Target 1. It is much smaller than Pluto and was recently selected based on images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

Spotlight On Pluto’s Frozen Polar Canyons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Many Moons Does Mercury Have?

Virtually every planet in the Solar System has moons. Earth has The Moon, Mars has Phobos and Deimos, and Jupiter and Saturn have 67 and 62 officially named moons, respectively. Heck, even the recently-demoted dwarf planet Pluto has five confirmed moons – Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. And even asteroids like 243 Ida may have satellites orbiting them (in this case, Dactyl). But what about Mercury?

If moons are such a common feature in the Solar System, why is it that Mercury has none? Yes, if one were to ask how many satellites the planet closest to our Sun has, that would be the short answer. But answering it more thoroughly requires that we examine the process through which other planets acquired their moons, and seeing how these apply (or fail to apply) to Mercury.

Continue reading “How Many Moons Does Mercury Have?”

How Long is a Day on Pluto?

Pluto takes 6.4 Earth days (6 days 9 hours and 36 minutes) to complete one rotation, so this is how long a day is on Pluto.

When the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto and its moons in July of 2015, it took hundreds of images. The montage above shows Pluto rotating over the course of a full day. It provides our first close-up look at what a day on Pluto might be like.

What Makes a Day?

To clarify, one day on any planet is the time it takes for the planet to completely spin around and make one full rotation about its axis. Here on Earth that takes 24 hours, but each planet has a different rotational speed. Since Pluto rotates more slowly than Earth, its day is longer.

This artist's concept of the frosty surface of Pluto with Charon and our sun as backdrops illustrates that while sunlight is much weaker than it is here on Earth, it isn't as dark as you might expect. In fact, you could read a book on the surface of Pluto. Credit: NASA.
This artist’s concept of the frosty surface of Pluto with Charon and our sun as backdrops illustrates that while sunlight is much weaker than it is here on Earth, it isn’t as dark as you might expect. In fact, you could read a book on the surface of Pluto. Credit: NASA.

What is a Day on Pluto Like?

Since Pluto is so much farther from the Sun, the amount of sunlight that reaches Pluto is much less that what we receive on Earth. It has been estimated that the Sun would appear about 1,000 times dimmer than it appears on Earth. NASA has said that instead of a big yellow disc, the Sun would look more like other stars, although the Sun would be the brightest object in the sky.

However, it isn’t completely dark on Pluto. Since Pluto has a thin atmosphere, that atmosphere would scatter the light, but probably not enough to make a bright sky like we see on Earth or Mars. NASA says that at a certain time near dawn and dusk each day, the illumination on Earth matches that of high noon on Pluto. NASA has a “Pluto Time” website where you can plug in your location and find out what time of day you could experience the same amount of light (on a clear day) that Pluto is receiving.

A graphic depicting the Pluto system's orbital orientation. Credit: NASA.
A graphic depicting the Pluto system’s orbital orientation. Credit: NASA.

However, seasonal variations of daylight on Pluto can be extreme. Pluto’s year is 248 Earth years long, and so the seasons are very long. Plus, compared to most of the planets and their moons, the whole Pluto-Charon system is tipped on its side. Therefore, Pluto rotates on its “side” in its orbital plane, with an axial tilt of 122 degrees – very similar to the “sideways” planet Uranus. So at its solstices, one-fourth of Pluto’s surface is in continuous daylight, while another fourth is in continuous darkness.

Take a look at the Solar System from above, and you can see that the planets make nice circular orbits around the Sun. But dwarf planet’s Pluto’s orbit is very different. It’s highly elliptical, traveling around the Sun in a squashed circle. And Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined, traveling at an angle of 17-degrees. This strange orbit gives Pluto some unusual characteristics, sometimes bringing it within the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Take a look at the Solar System from above, and you can see that the planets make nice circular orbits around the Sun. But dwarf planet’s Pluto’s orbit is very different. It’s highly elliptical, traveling around the Sun in a squashed circle. And Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined, traveling at an angle of 17-degrees. This strange orbit gives Pluto some unusual characteristics, sometimes bringing it within the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

Also, Pluto travels around the Sun in a very elliptical orbit. At its closest point, or perihelion, Pluto gets as close as 4.4 billion km from the Sun. At its most distant point, or aphelion, Pluto is 7.4 billion km from the Sun. Therefore, the amount of sunlight varies throughout Pluto’s long year depending on how close or far it is to the Sun.

A portrait from the final approach of the New Horizons spacecraft to the Pluto system on July 11, 2015. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI.
A portrait from the final approach of the New Horizons spacecraft to the Pluto system on July 11, 2015. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI.

One interesting note is that Pluto and Charon are a binary planet system, and the two worlds are in orbit around each other. Also, Pluto’s moon Charon is tidally locked around Pluto. This means that Charon takes 6 days and 9 hours to orbit around Pluto – the same amount of time it takes for a day on Pluto. This means that Charon is always at the same place in the sky when seen from Pluto.

You would have the same view from Charon as well. From some vantage points on Charon, Pluto would always hang at the same spot in the sky, and for other parts, you wouldn’t be able to see Pluto at all.

New Horizons also captured a full day rotation for Charon, too, which you can see below:

On approach to the Pluto system in July 2015, the cameras on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured images of the largest of Pluto's five moons, Charon, rotating over the course of a full day. The best currently available images of each side of Charon taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation of the moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.
On approach to the Pluto system in July 2015, the cameras on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured images of the largest of Pluto’s five moons, Charon, rotating over the course of a full day. The best currently available images of each side of Charon taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation of the moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

The images used in the Pluto and Charon “day” montages were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera as the New Horizons spacecraft zoomed toward the Pluto system, and in the various images the distance between New Horizons and Pluto decreased from 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) on July 7 to 400,000 miles (about 645,000 kilometers) on July 13, 2015. You can read more about these images here on Universe Today, and here on the New Horizons website.

See Daytime Views of Pluto and Charon’s Rotation

A day on Pluto is 6.4 Earth days (6 days 9 hours and 36 minutes) long. That’s a lengthy, cold, and rather dark day. But this new image released by the New Horizons spacecraft team gives us a better idea of what a day on Pluto might be like. This montage of images shows Pluto rotating over the course of a full Pluto day.

It is interesting to note that Pluto’s moon Charon is tidally locked around Pluto, so this means that Charon takes 6.4 Earth days to orbit around Pluto – the same amount of time as a day on Pluto. If you were standing on Pluto, Charon would always be at the same place in the sky, or you wouldn’t be able to see it at all. And vise versa if you were on Charon.

New Horizons also captured a full day rotation for Charon, too, which you can see below.

On approach to the Pluto system in July 2015, the cameras on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured images of the largest of Pluto's five moons, Charon, rotating over the course of a full day. The best currently available images of each side of Charon taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation of the moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.
On approach to the Pluto system in July 2015, the cameras on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured images of the largest of Pluto’s five moons, Charon, rotating over the course of a full day. The best currently available images of each side of Charon taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation of the moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

The images were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera as New Horizons zoomed toward the Pluto system, and in the various images the distance between New Horizons and Pluto decreased from 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) on July 7 to 400,000 miles (about 645,000 kilometers) on July 13, 2015.

The science team explained that in the Pluto montage, the more distant images are at the 12 to 3 o’clock position, and so these are the best views we have of the peculiar “bumps” or impact craters on the far side. The side New Horizons saw in most detail – what the mission team calls the “encounter hemisphere” – is at the 6 o’clock position. The most prevalent feature there is the heart-shaped, “Tombaugh Regio” area that made us all love Pluto even more.

The odd shape of Pluto in the 12 and 1 o’clock position images aren’t lumps and deformities, but just artifacts from the way the images were combined to create these composites.

For the Charon montage, the images at the 9 o’clock position were taken from the greatest distance, with few of the signature surface features visible, such as the cratered uplands, canyons, or rolling plains of the region informally named Vulcan Planum. The side New Horizons saw in most detail, during closest approach on July 14, 2015, is at the 12 o’clock position.

As a comparison, below is a timelapse view of the Pluto-Charon orbital dance, which was taken by New Horizons back in January 2015. Pluto and Charon were observed for an entire rotation of each body, the same 6 days 9 hours and 36 minutes.

Pluto and Charon were observed by the New Horizons spacecraft for an entire rotation of each body; a “day” on Pluto and Charon is 6.4, which is  Earth days. The first of the images was taken when New Horizons was about 3 billion miles from Earth, but just 126 million miles (203 million kilometers) from Pluto, on Jan. 25-31, 2015. NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute.
Pluto and Charon were observed by the New Horizons spacecraft for an entire rotation of each body; a “day” on Pluto and Charon is 6.4, which is Earth days. The first of the images was taken when New Horizons was about 3 billion miles from Earth, but just 126 million miles (203 million kilometers) from Pluto, on Jan. 25-31, 2015. NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute.

Source: New Horizons

Charon’s Twin ‘Star Wars’ Craters Are Distinctly Different; New Horizons Continues Toward KBO

Just like Luke and Leia, two craters named for the Star Wars twins (Skywalker and Organa) have many similarities. They look about the same size and shape, and appear to have been created at the same time, and therefore are about the same age. But instruments on the New Horizons spacecraft detected one major difference: Organa and its surrounding area are laced with ammonia.

“Why are these two similar-looking and similar-sized craters, so near to each other, so compositionally distinct?” asked Will Grundy, who leads the New Horizons Composition team. “We have various ideas when it comes to the ammonia in Organa. The crater could be younger, or perhaps the impact that created it hit a pocket of ammonia-rich subsurface ice. Alternatively, maybe Organa’s impactor delivered its own ammonia.”

Both craters are roughly 5 kilometers (3 miles) in diameter, with similar appearances, such as bright rays of ejecta. One apparent difference is that Organa has a central region of darker ejecta, though from the map created with data from New Horizons’ Ralph/LEISA instrument, it appears that the ammonia-rich material extends beyond this dark area.

The nearby Skywalker crater, however, shows an infrared spectrum that is similar to the rest of Charon’s craters and surface, with features mostly dominated by ordinary water ice.

“This is a fantastic discovery,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy lead for the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. “Concentrated ammonia is a powerful antifreeze on icy worlds, and if the ammonia really is from Charon’s interior, it could help explain the formation of Charon’s surface by cryovolcanism, via the eruption of cold, ammonia-water magmas.”

The New Horizons team is informally naming features after various sci-fi characters. So maybe – like their Star Wars namesakes – the craters Skywalker and Organa actually are different ages, as students at the University of Leicester calculated in a paper published earlier this year. The students said that Leia would be about 2 years old than Luke because of relative velocity time dilation – which describes the bending of spacetime due to differences in speed. Their different journeys through space in various craft would change how fast they are aging.

But we digress…

A new map of Pluto's 'heart.' This image released on October 29, 2015, provides fascinating new details to help the science team map the informally named Krun Macula (the prominent dark spot at the bottom of the image) and the complex terrain east and northeast of Pluto's "heart" (Tombaugh Regio). Pluto's north pole is on the planet's disk at the 12 o'clock position of this image. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
A new map of Pluto’s ‘heart.’ This image released on October 29, 2015, provides fascinating new details to help the science team map the informally named Krun Macula (the prominent dark spot at the bottom of the image) and the complex terrain east and northeast of Pluto’s “heart” (Tombaugh Regio). Pluto’s north pole is on the planet’s disk at the 12 o’clock position of this image. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Meanwhile, as New Horizons continues to send back more imagery and data, the spacecraft’s hydrazine-fueled thrusters completed the third of four maneuvers to direct the spacecraft towards an ancient and distant Kuiper Belt Object named 2014 MU69.

As we explained in our previous article, the four maneuvers are designed change New Horizons’ path to send it toward a close encounter with the KBO on Jan. 1, 2019. Even though the New Horizons spacecraft hasn’t officially been approved to do this flyby as an extended mission, the team is taking advantage of being able to do the maneuvers early, thereby saving fuel.

The science team hopes to bring the spacecraft even closer to MU69 than it came to Pluto this summer, which was approximately 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers)

The fourth and final KBO targeting maneuver is scheduled for next week, Nov. 4, 2015.

Another image released this week from the New Horizons team:

This image was made just 15 minutes after New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, as the spacecraft looked back at Pluto toward the sun. The wide-angle perspective of this view shows the deep haze layers of Pluto's atmosphere extending all the way around Pluto, revealing the silhouetted profiles of rugged plateaus on the night (left) side. The image was taken with New Horizons' Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image was made just 15 minutes after New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, as the spacecraft looked back at Pluto toward the sun. The wide-angle perspective of this view shows the deep haze layers of Pluto’s atmosphere extending all the way around Pluto, revealing the silhouetted profiles of rugged plateaus on the night (left) side. The image was taken with New Horizons’ Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

In September, the New Horizons team released a stunning but incomplete image of Pluto’s crescent. Thanks to new processing work by the science team, New Horizons is releasing the entire, breathtaking image of Pluto.

Alex Parker, one of the science team members who worked on the image said on Twitter, “The haze over Pluto’s dark limb were frustratingly run through with instrumental artifacts. This version is my latest destripe and denoise.” He also noted a few things: look closely, and you can see background stars behind Pluto. Additionally, look at Pluto’s shadowed limb:

Sources: NASA, Johns Hopkins U.

Thousands of Pits Punctuate Pluto’s Forbidding Plains in Latest Photos

A brand new batch of Pluto and Charon photos showed up today on the New Horizons LORRI (LOng-Range Reconnaissance Imager) site. The photos were taken during the close flyby of the system on July 14, 2015 and show rich detail including craters and parallel cracks on Charon and thousands of small pits punctuating Pluto’s nitrogen ice landscape. Have at ’em!

This wider view shows the textured surface of Pluto's icy plains riddled with small pits. It almost looks like the dark areas in the sinuous channels between the mounds were once covered with frost or ice that has since sublimated away. They look similar to the polar regions on Mars where carbon dioxide frost burns off in the spring to reveal darker material beneath. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This wider view shows the snakeskin-like textured surface of Pluto’s icy plains riddled with small pits. It almost looks like the dark areas in the sinuous channels between the mounds were once covered with frost or ice that has since sublimated away. They look similar to the polar regions on Mars where carbon dioxide frost burns off in the spring to reveal darker material beneath. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The first couple images feature the region informally known as Sputnik Planum. According to a release from NASA today, scientists think the region is composed of volatile ices such as solid nitrogen. They theorize that the pits and troughs – typically hundreds of meters across and tens of meters deep – are possibly formed by sublimation or evaporation of these ices in Pluto’s thin atmosphere. Still, their curious shapes and alignments remain a mystery. Adding to the intrigue is that even when seen up close, no impact craters are visible, testifying to the icy plain’s extreme geologic youth.

By the way, there are more images at the LORRI link at top. I picked a representative selection but I encourage you to visit and explore.

Now that's what I call getting a photo in low light. Sunlight scrapes across rugged mountains as well as highlight the ubiquitous pits. Credit:
Now that’s what I call getting a photo in low light. Sunlight scrapes across rugged mountains as well as highlight the ubiquitous pitted terrain. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Life's definitely the pits on Pluto's Tombaugh Regio. This photo shows the fainter "ghost" pits well. Is ice filling them in or are we seeing the start of a pit's formation? Credit:
Life’s definitely the pits on Pluto’s Tombaugh Regio. This photo shows the fainter “ghost” pits well. Is ice filling them in or are we seeing the beginning of a pit’s formation? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
A fine view of Pluto's largest moon Charon and its vast canyon system. Credit:
A fine view of Pluto’s largest moon Charon and its vast canyon system. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Looking over Charon's dark north polar region, the border of which is highlighted by several beautiful rayed craters. Not that it's necessarily related, but the dark spot reminds me of a lunar mare or sea. On the moon, cracks in the crust allowed lava to fill gigantic basins to create the maria. Could material from beneath Charon have bubbled up to fill an ancient impact? Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Looking over Charon’s dark north polar region, the border of which is highlighted by several beautiful rayed craters. Not that it’s necessarily related, but the dark spot reminds me of a lunar mare or sea. On the moon, cracks in the crust allowed lava to fill gigantic basins to create the maria. Could material from beneath Charon have bubbled up to fill an ancient impact? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Speaking of the Moon, these cracks resembles lunar rills, some of which formed through faulting / fracturing and others as conduits for lava flows. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Speaking of the Moon, the large cracks at left resemble lunar rills, some of which formed through faulting / fracturing and others as conduits for lava flows. The multiple, fine cracks  are interesting. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Splendid rayed crater, each with its own set of tones. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Splendid rayed crater with an interesting contrast between dark and light ejecta. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
A busy region on Charon, the meeting place of different terrains. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
A busy region on Charon, the meeting place of different terrains. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

 

Awesome Blue Skies and Red Surface Ice Found at Pluto – The Other Red Planet

Much to the amazement and delight of scientists, the latest findings about Pluto reveal it possesses hazy blue skies and numerous red colored patches of water ice exposed on the surface of a world also now known as “The Other Red Planet.”

With each passing day, significant discoveries about Pluto continue piling up higher and higher as more and more data gathered and stored from this past summer’s historic flyby by NASA’s New Horizons reaches ground stations back here on Earth.

“Blue skies–Pluto is awesome!” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.

The bluish tint to Pluto’s skies were unexpectedly discovered after researchers examined the first color images of the high altitude atmospheric hazes returned by New Horizons last week that were taken by the probes Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC).

“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt?” Stern said in a NASA statement.

During New Horizons flyby on July 14, 2015, it discovered that Pluto is the biggest object in the outer solar system and thus the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt.”

The Kuiper Belt comprises the third and outermost region of worlds in our solar system.

“It’s gorgeous!” exclaims Stern.

Moreover, the source of Pluto’s blue haze is different from Earth’s and more related to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon – currently being explored by NASA’s Cassini mission orbiting Saturn since 2004.

On Earth, the blue sky is caused by light scattering off tiny particles of nitrogen molecules. Whereas on Titan its related to soot-like particles called tholins.

Tholins are generated by a series of very complex sunlight-initiated chemical reactions between nitrogen and methane (CH4) high in the atmosphere. This eventually produces relatively small, soot-like particles of complex hydrocarbons.

“That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles,” said New Horizons science team researcher Carly Howett, of SwRI, in a statement.

“A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger — but still relatively small — soot-like particles we call tholins.”

As the tholins rain down on Pluto, they add to the widespread red surface coloring.

The Ralph instrument was also key in another discovery announced by New Horizons researchers.

Numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto’s surface were discovered by combining measurements from the Ralph MVIC spectral composition mapper and infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument.

The strongest signatures of water ice were found in the Virgil Fossa and Viking Terra regions berby the western edge of Pluto’s huge heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio feature – see image below.

Water Ice on Pluto: Regions with exposed water ice are highlighted in blue in this composite image from New Horizons' Ralph instrument, combining visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) with infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The strongest signatures of water ice occur along Virgil Fossa, just west of Elliot crater on the left side of the inset image, and also in Viking Terra near the top of the frame. A major outcrop also occurs in Baré Montes towards the right of the image, along with numerous much smaller outcrops, mostly associated with impact craters and valleys between mountains. The scene is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) across. Note that all surface feature names are informal.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Water Ice on Pluto: Regions with exposed water ice are highlighted in blue in this composite image from New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, combining visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) with infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The strongest signatures of water ice occur along Virgil Fossa, just west of Elliot crater on the left side of the inset image, and also in Viking Terra near the top of the frame. A major outcrop also occurs in Baré Montes towards the right of the image, along with numerous much smaller outcrops, mostly associated with impact craters and valleys between mountains. The scene is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) across. Note that all surface feature names are informal. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Water ice is only found in certain zones of Pluto for reasons yet to be understood. There may also be a relationship to the tholins, that likewise is yet to be gleaned.

“I’m surprised that this water ice is so red,” says Silvia Protopapa, a science team member from the University of Maryland, College Park. “We don’t yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto’s surface.”

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

As of today, New Horizons remains healthy and is over 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth.

The team hopes to fire up the thrusters later this fall to propel the spacecraft toward a second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in 2019 tentativley named PT1, for Potential Target 1. It is much smaller than Pluto and was recently selected based on images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

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

Ken Kremer

Weekly Space Hangout – Oct 2, 2015: Water on Mars, Blood Moon Eclipses, and More Pluto!

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:

Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Pamela Gay (cosmoquest.org / @cosmoquestx / @starstryder)
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein / briankoberlein.com)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Oct 2, 2015: Water on Mars, Blood Moon Eclipses, and More Pluto!”

Charon Suffered Surprisingly Titanic Upheavals in Fresh Imagery from New Horizons

Charon in Enhanced Color with Grand Canyon
NASA’s New Horizons captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Charon and its Grand Canyon just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC); the colors are processed to best highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. Charon’s color palette is not as diverse as Pluto’s; most striking is the reddish north (top) polar region, informally named Mordor Macula. Charon is 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across; this image resolves details as small as 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI[/caption]

Charon suffered such a surprisingly violent past of titanic upheavals that they created a humongous canyon stretching across the entire face of Pluto’s largest moon – as revealed in a fresh batch of images just returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

We have been agog in amazement these past few weeks as New Horizons focused its attention on transmitting astounding high resolution imagery and data of Pluto, captured during mankind’s history making first encounter with our solar systems last unexplored planet on July 14, 2015, at a distance of 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers).

Now after tantalizing hints we see that Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, did
not disappoint and is no less exciting than the “snakeskin texture mountains” of Pluto revealed only last week.

“You’ll love this,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in a blog posting.

Indeed researches say Charon’s tortured landscape of otherworldly canyons, mountains and more far exceeds scientists preconceived notions of a “monotonous, crater-battered world; instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.”

“We thought the probability of seeing such interesting features on this satellite of a world at the far edge of our solar system was low,” said Ross Beyer, an affiliate of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team from the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in a statement.

“But I couldn’t be more delighted with what we see.”

Measuring 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) across, Charon is half the diameter of Pluto and forms a double planet system. Charon also ranks as the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. By comparison, Earth’s moon is one quarter the size of our home planet.

The new images of the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon were taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) during the July 14 flyby and downlinked over about the past week and a half.

They reveal details of a belt of fractures and canyons just north of the moon’s equator.

High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers).  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
High-resolution images of Charon were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shortly before closest approach on July 14, 2015, and overlaid with enhanced color from the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Charon’s cratered uplands at the top are broken by series of canyons, and replaced on the bottom by the rolling plains of the informally named Vulcan Planum. The scene covers Charon’s width of 754 miles (1,214 kilometers) and resolves details as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The “Grand Canyon of Charon” stretches more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across the entire face of Charon visible in the new images. Furthermore the deep canyon probably extends onto the far side of Pluto and hearkens back to Valles Marineris on Mars.

“It looks like the entire crust of Charon has been split open,” said John Spencer, deputy lead for GGI at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

“With respect to its size relative to Charon, this feature is much like the vast Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars.”

Charon’s “Grand Canyon” is four times as long as the Grand Canyon of the United States. Plus its twice as deep in places. “These faults and canyons indicate a titanic geological upheaval in Charon’s past,” according to the New Horizons team.

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

Another intriguing finding is the area south of the canyon is much smoother, with fewer craters and may have been resurfaced by a type of “cryovolcanism.”

The southern plains are informally named “Vulcan Planum” and may be much younger.

“The team is discussing the possibility that an internal water ocean could have frozen long ago, and the resulting volume change could have led to Charon cracking open, allowing water-based lavas to reach the surface at that time,” said Paul Schenk, a New Horizons team member from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Barely 5 or 6 percent of the 50 gigabits of data captured by New Horizons has been received by ground stations back on Earth due to the slow downlink rate.

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Many astounding discoveries await.

“I predict Charon’s story will become even more amazing!” said mission Project Scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

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