Scientists Urge Europe to Stick With “Armageddon”-style Asteroid Mission

For decades, scientists have known that in near-Earth space there are thousands of comets and asteroids that periodically cross Earth’s orbit. These Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) are routinely tracked by NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) to make sure that none pose a risk of collision with our planet. Various programs and missions have also been proposed to divert or destroy any asteroids that might pass too closely to Earth in the future.

One such mission is the Asteroid Impact & Deflection Assessment (AIDA), a collaborative effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Recently, the ESA announced that it would be withdrawing from this mission due to budget constraints. But this past Wednesday (Sept. 20th), during the European Planetary Science Conference in Riga, a group of international scientists urged them to reconsider.

In addition to NASA and the ESA, AIDA was designed with assistance from the Observatoire de la Côte d´Azur (OCA), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL). To test possible asteroid deflection techniques, the mission intends to send a spacecraft to crash into the tiny moon of the distant asteroid named Didymos (nicknamed “Didymoon”) by 2022 to alter its trajectory.

Artist’s impression of the path DART will take to reach the asteroid Didymos. Credit: NASA

This mission would be a first for scientists, and would test the capabilities of space agencies to divert rocks away from Earth’s orbit. NASA’s contribution to this mission is known as the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), the spacecraft which would be responsible for crashing into Didymoon. Plans for this spacecraft recently entered Phase B, having met with approval, but still in need of further development.

The plan was to mount DART on an already planned commercial or military launch, and would then be placed in geosynchronous orbit between December 2020 and May 2021. It would then rely on a NEXT-C ion engine to push itself beyond the Moon and reach an escape point to depart the Earth-Moon system, eventually making its way to Didymos and Didymoon.

Europe’s contribution to the mission was known as the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), which would involve sending a small craft close to Didymos to observe the crash and conduct research on the asteroid’s moon. Unfortunately, this aspect of the mission suffered a setback when space ministers from the ESA’s 22 member states rejected a €250 million ($300 million USD) request for funding last December.

However, during the European Planetary Science Congress – which will be taking place from September 17th to 22nd in the Latvian capital of Riga – scientists took the opportunity to advise the mission’s European partners to get back on board. As they emphasized, this mission – which is a dry-run for future asteroid redirect missions – is crucial if space agencies hope to develop the capacity to protect Earth from hazardous NEOs.

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission, a candidate mission due for launch in 2020, will map the smaller body of the Didymos binary asteroid system down to 1 m resolution following its arrival in 2022. Credit: ESA

Andrew Cheng from JHUAPL is the project scientist for the DART mission. As he told the AFP at the European Planetary Science Congress, “This is the kind of disaster that could be a tremendous catastrophe.” He also stressed that unlike other natural disasters, an asteroid strike “is something that the world is able to defend. We can do something.”

But before that can happen, the methods need to be further developed, tested and refined. Hence why Didymoon was selected as the target for the AIDA mission. Whereas the meteor that exploded over the Russian town of Chelyabinsk in 2013 was just 20 meters across (65 feet), but still injured 1600 people, Didymoon measures about 160 meters (525 feet) in diameter.

It is estimated that if this asteroid struck Earth, the resulting impact would be as powerful as a 400 megatonne blast. To put that in perspective, the most powerful thermonuclear device ever built – the Soviet Tsar Bomba – had a yield of 50 megatonnes. Hence, the smaller companion of this binary asteroid, if it struck Earth, would have an impact 80 times greater than the most powerful bomb ever built by humans.

In addition to advocating that the ESA remain committed to the mission, European scientists at the conference also proposed an altered, more cost-effective alternative for AIM. This alternative called for a miniaturized version of the AIM craft that would be equipped with just a camera, forgoing a lander and radars designed to probe Didymoon’s internal structure.

Simulated image of the Didymos system, derived from photometric lightcurve and radar data. Credits: Naidu et al./AIDA Workshop (2016)

According to Patrick Michel, the science lead for the AIM mission, this revised mission would cost about €210 million ($250 million USD). But as he also noted, this would require that the AIM part of the mission be delayed. While it would still conduct crucial measurements of Didymoon, it would not be part of the AIDA mission if NASA decides to stick with its original timeline.

“The main point of the mission was to measure the mass of the object, because this is how you really measure the deflection,” he said. “Two or three years (after impact), these things won’t change. Of course it’s better… that we have the two at the same time. But we found something I think that still works and allows to relax the very tight schedule.”

In the meantime, Jan Woerner – the head of the European Space Agency – indicated that the ESA would be moving forward with the new proposal when the next ministerial meeting takes place in 2019. As he told the AFP via email:

“It is important for humanity, as a species we have the means today to deflect an asteroid. We know it will happen, one day sooner or later. It’s not a question of if, but when. We have never tested asteroid deflection and there is no way we can test in (the) laboratory. We need to know if our models are correct, (whether) our simulations work as expected.”

In the end, it remains to be seen if the AIDA mission will see one or two missions traveling to Didymoon by 2022. Obviously, it would be better if both mission happened simultaneously, as the AIM mission will be capable of obtaining information DART will not. Much of that information has to do with with studying the effects of the collision up close and as they happen.

But regardless of how this mission unfolds, it is clear that space agencies from around the world are dedicated to developing techniques for protecting Earth from asteroids that pose a collision hazard. Between NASA, the ESA, and their many institutional partners and private contractors, multiple methods are being developed to divert or destroy oncoming space rocks before they hit us.

However, I’m pretty sure not one of them involves sending a bunch of miners with minimal training into space to plant a nuke inside an asteroid. That would just be silly on its face!

And be sure to check out this video that details the AIDA and Asteroid Impact Mission, courtesy of ESA:

 

Further Reading: AFP

 

Scientists Assemble Fresh Global Map of Pluto Comprising Sharpest Flyby Images

NASA’s New Horizons mission science team has produced this updated panchromatic (black-and-white) global map of Pluto. The map includes all resolved images of Pluto’s surface acquired at pixel resolutions ranging from 18 miles (30 kilometers) on the Charon-facing hemisphere (left and right edges of the map) to 770 feet (235 meters) on the hemisphere facing New Horizons during the closest approach on July 14, 2015 (map center).  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
NASA’s New Horizons mission science team has produced this updated panchromatic (black-and-white) global map of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The science team leading NASA’s New Horizons mission that unveiled the true nature of Pluto’s long hidden looks during the history making maiden close encounter last July, have published a fresh global map that offers the sharpest and most spectacular glimpse yet of the mysterious, icy world.

The newly updated global Pluto map is comprised of all the highest resolution images transmitted back to Earth thus far and provides the best perspective to date.

Click on the lead image above to enjoy Pluto revealed at its finest thus far. Click on this link to view the highest resolution version.

Prior to the our first ever flyby of the Pluto planetary system barely 8 months ago, the planet was nothing more than a fuzzy blob with very little in the way of identifiable surface features – even in the most powerful telescopic views lovingly obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

Dead center in the new map is the mesmerizing heart shaped region informally known as Tombaugh Regio, unveiled in all its glory and dominating the diminutive world.

The panchromatic (black-and-white) global map of Pluto published by the team includes the latest images received as of less than one week ago on April 25.

The images were captured by New Horizons’ high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).

The science team is working on assembling an updated color map.

During its closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft 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, the largest moon.

The map includes all resolved images of Pluto’s surface acquired in the final week of the approach period ahead of the flyby starting on July 7, and continuing through to the day of closest approach on July 14, 2015 – and transmitted back so far.

The pixel resolutions are easily seen to vary widely across the map as you scan the global map from left to right – depending on which Plutonian hemisphere was closest to the spacecraft during the period of close flyby.
They range from the highest resolution of 770 feet (235 meters), at center, to 18 miles (30 kilometers) at the far left and right edges.

The Charon-facing hemisphere (left and right edges of the map) had a pixel resolution of 18 miles (30 kilometers).

“This non-encounter hemisphere was seen from much greater range and is, therefore, in far less detail,” noted the team.

However the hemisphere facing New Horizons during the spacecraft’s closest approach on July 14, 2015 (map center) had a far higher pixel resolution reaching to 770 feet (235 meters).

Coincidentally and fortuitously the spectacularly diverse terrain of Tombaugh Regio and the Sputnik Planum area of the hearts left ventricle with ice flows and volcanoes, mountains and river channels was in the region facing the camera and sports the highest resolution imagery.

See below a newly released shaded relief map of Sputnik Planum.

This new shaded relief view of the region surrounding the left side of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature – informally named Sputnik Planum – shows that the vast expanse of the icy surface is on average 2 miles (3 kilometers) lower than the surrounding terrain.  Angular blocks of water ice are “floating” in the bright deposits of softer, denser solid nitrogen.   Credits:  NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This new shaded relief view of the region surrounding the left side of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature – informally named Sputnik Planum – shows that the vast expanse of the icy surface is on average 2 miles (3 kilometers) lower than the surrounding terrain. Angular blocks of water ice are “floating” in the bright deposits of softer, denser solid nitrogen. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“Sputnik Planum – shows that the vast expanse of the icy surface is on average 2 miles (3 kilometers) lower than the surrounding terrain. Angular blocks of water ice along the western edge of Sputnik Planum can be seen “floating” in the bright deposits of softer, denser solid nitrogen,” according to the team.

Even more stunning images and groundbreaking data will continue streaming back from New Horizons until early fall, across over 3 billion miles of interplanetary space.

Thus the global map of Pluto will be periodically updated.

Its taking over a year to receive the full complement of some 50 gigabits of data due to the limited bandwidth available from the transmitter on the piano-shaped probe as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

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.

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

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

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

………….

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

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

Astonishing ‘Snakeskin’ Textured Mountains Discovered on Pluto

The more we learn about Pluto, the weirder and weirder it gets.

The newest batch of high resolution Plutonian images has yielded “astonishing” discoveries of previously unseen ‘snakeskin’ textured mountains, that are simultaneously “dazzling and mystifying” scientists analyzing the latest data just returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

New Horizons swooped past the Pluto planetary system during mankind’s history making first encounter on July 14, 2015 at a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).

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

Data from that priceless, once in a lifetime flyby is now trickling back to Earth.

The ‘snakeskin’ feature on Pluto’s utterly bizarre surface was unveiled to “astonished” scientists scrutinizing the latest data dump received over the past week, that included images taken by the Ralph instruments Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).

Features as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers) are resolved in detail.

The MVIC image stretches about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across the ‘snakeskin’ like landscape composed of rounded and bizarrely textured mountains that are informally named Tartarus Dorsa and that borders the bodies day-night terminator.

It shows intricate patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between that are puzzling researchers.

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis.

“It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”

The Ralph/MVIC image is actually a composite of blue, red and infrared images.

The image of Tartarus Dorsa reveals a “multitude of previously unseen topographic and compositional details. It captures a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that has astonished New Horizons team members,” say officials.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).  The viewer is encouraged to zoom in on the image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features.   Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). The viewer is encouraged to zoom in on the image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Another wider angle global view of Pluto downlinked on Sept. 19 shows a new “extended color” view of Pluto with an the extraordinarily rich color palette of the planet.

“We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

“Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”

The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Beyond MVIC, additional new images taken by New Horizons’ narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) during the July 14 were downlinked on Sept. 20.

They focus on the Sputnik Planum ice plains on the left side of the famous heart shaped Tombaugh Regio feature and are the highest resolution yet – as seen below. The team added color based on the global MVIC map shown above.

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from a larger, high-resolution mosaic, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from a larger, high-resolution mosaic, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

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

“With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both color and composition,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI.

“I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day.”

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap.

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 mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
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 mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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

Ken Kremer

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon - shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon – shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Take an Astounding Aerial Flyover Tour Soaring Above Pluto’s Wondrous Heart, Icy Flow Plains and Majestic Mountains

Video caption: This animation of LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) images begins with a low-altitude look at the informally named Norgay Montes, flies northward over the boundary between informally named Sputnik Planum and Cthulhu Regio, turns, and drifts slowly east above Pluto’s heart shaped Tombaugh Regio feature. It then rises about 10 times higher in altitude as NASA’s New Horizons flew closest to Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Stuart Robbins. See additional high resolution global Pluto and Tombaugh Regio mosaics below

Imagine yourself as a once in a lifetime Plutonian tourist sailing along in a spartan spaceship and looking out the windows to breathtaking alien landscapes with cameras snapping away.

Now for the first time in human history, you can embark on a heretofore unimaginable flyover tour over Pluto – the most distant planetary system yet explored by an emissary from Earth, thanks to the team propelling NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to the far flung reaches of our Solar System.

Just click on the video above and take the astounding aerial flyover tour above Pluto’s huge heart and the icy worlds wondrous array of tectonically active flow plains and majestic mountain ranges towering kilometers skyward to its thin hazy atmosphere.

The animation is a gift to humanity as seen from the perspective of the New Horizons probe as it flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015 at a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).

The new flyover video beautifully melds “art and science” – and is the brainchild of Stuart Robbins, a New Horizons research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“I have used the latest images to produce an animation that shows what it might be like to take an aerial tour through Pluto’s thin atmosphere and soar above the surface that New Horizons explored,” Robbins explained in a blog posting.

The flyover animation is based on a stitched together mosaic of New Horizons images that were then rendered onto a sphere of Pluto. The animation and spherical mosaic were created by New Horizons team members using the initial batch of images taken by the LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) camera and downloaded from the spacecraft as of Sept. 11, 2015.

“The mosaic …. provides an incredibly accurate portrayal of Pluto’s surface. It showcases …. the huge variety of terrain types that we see on Pluto.”

The flyover begins low over the heart shaped region of Pluto informally named Tombaugh Regio by the New Horizons team. The LORRI images at the starting point over the Norgay Montes mountain range have a resolution up to 400 meters per pixel at a altitude of only about 120 miles (200 kilometers). The resolution then changes to about 800 meters per pixel.

The animation concludes with images of approximately 2.1 kilometers per pixel as the apparent altitude increases tenfold to about 1,500 miles (2,500 kilometers) as viewers perspective changes from an up close view to one revealing Pluto’s disk rapidly growing to show about 80% of the hemisphere New Horizons flew closest to on July 14, 2015.

Here is Robbins explanation of the Plutonian terrain visible during your tourists eye view:

“Our tour starts low over the informally named Norgay Montes at a height of about 120 miles (200 kilometers). These jagged mountains rise almost 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the surrounding surface.”

“We head north over Sputnik Planum (bright area to the left) and Cthulhu Regio (dark area to the right). While Sputnik Planum is smooth at this pixel scale, it’s in marked contrast to Cthulhu Regio which has many large impact craters that indicate the Regio is much older. The differences in brightness are some of the largest natural brightness variations of any object in the solar system.”

“Our view steadily rises to a height of about 150 miles (240 kilometers) and turns to look east. From this point, we drift slowly to the east, with Pluto’s north pole to the left, Tombaugh Regio filling much of the middle of the view, and older, more cratered areas standing out in marked contrast to the younger glaciers of the “heart’s” left lobe, Sputnik Planum.”

“As we continue to fly, our flight path rises to more than 1,500 miles (2,500 kilometers) with the final view of most of the disk that New Horizons saw on July 14.”

Robbins role on the New Horizons science team is using the images “to map craters across the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, to understand the population of impactors from the Kuiper Belt striking Pluto and Charon.”

To see and study the whole disk of Pluto and the highest resolution view of the “heart” check out our global Pluto and Tombaugh Regio mosaics generated from raw images captured by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and stitched together by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.
New Horizon’s unveiled Pluto as a surprisingly vibrant and geologically active “icy world of wonders” as it barreled past the Pluto-Charon double planet system on July 14 at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) and collected unprecedented high resolution imagery and spectral measurements of the utterly alien worlds.

What are Pluto’s newly discovered plains and mountains composed of?

“The plains are made of nitrogen. But nitrogen is too soft a material to build mountains out of, even in Pluto’s weak gravity,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

“So the mountains must be made of something else stronger. Rock and water ice are the two most likely possibilities. But they are most likely water ice.”

Here’s our colorized and annotated version of the recently released backlit view of Pluto taken 15 minutes after closest approach as New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured a near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon.

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon - shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon – shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Since the flyby, the team has been busy analyzing the science data returned thus far and “making some discoveries” says Stern.

“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system.”

“If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.”

New Horizons gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

New Horizons also 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.

Only about 5 to 6 percent has been downlinked to Earth so far. Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back.

So expect a year of endless treats and surprises from the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt’!

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.  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. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

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

Ken Kremer

Global Pluto Mosaic From New Hi Res Imagery Reveals Bewildering Diversity and Complexity

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. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
See annotated version and new hi res Tombaugh Regio mosaic below[/caption]

A new global mosaic of Pluto created from the latest high resolution images just beamed back from NASA’s New Horizons probe reveals a bewildering diversity of planetary landforms with unimaginable complexity – yielding undreamed of science discoveries.

But because of limited bandwidth the new image data sets were stored onboard the probe until days ago when they were transmitted back to Earth and released by the New Horizons team late in the day on Friday, Sept. 11.

This best yet view of far flung Pluto comes from raw images taken as New Horizons conducted the history making first flyby past Pluto on July 14, 2015, at a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).

The global Pluto mosaic was generated from over two dozen raw images captured by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and stitched together by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

See also our expanded hi res Tombaugh Regio mosaic below showing features as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.

After transmitting carefully selected high priority images and science measurements across over 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) of interplanetary space in the days around the history making flyby, the team elected to temporarily pause the transmission of new images for several weeks in favor of sending other data important for helping place the entire Pluto planetary system into context.

Altogether, over 50 gigabits of data were collected during the July 14 encounter and flyby periods of the highest scientific activity – which includes the most critical hours before and after the spacecrafts closest approach to Pluto, its largest moon Charon and its quartet of smaller moons.

Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto including ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ (center) and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes.’  This new mosaic combines the eleven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.   Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto including ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ (center) and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes.’ This new mosaic combines the eleven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. It shows features as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Data from the flyby continues streaming back to Earth, but rather slowly due to limited bandwidth amounting to an average “downlink” of only about 2 kilobits per second via its two transmitters.

New Horizon’s unveiled Pluto as a surprising vibrant and geologically active “icy world of wonders” as it barreled past the Pluto-Charon double planet system on July 14 at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) and collected unprecedented high resolution imagery and spectral measurements of the utterly alien worlds.

Since the flyby, the team has been busy analyzing the science data returned thus far and “making some discoveries” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, during the Weekly Space Hangout on Sept 11.

The team is ecstatic with all the new images and created what they call a synthetic global view of a portion of Pluto.

“We created a synthetic global mosaic view of more than a dozen frames from the LORRI camera, and wrapped it on a sphere and then projected the view as if you were suspended about a thousand miles above the planet – looking back.”

Each LORRI frame is about 400 km across.

This new mosaic of Pluto is from the  latest high-resolution images sent to Earth from the New Horizons spacecraft  shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This new mosaic of Pluto is from the latest high-resolution images sent to Earth from the New Horizons spacecraft shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

“It gives a breathtaking view of how diverse the geology is and also how diverse the seasonal volatile transport must be across the surface.”

“It’s just absolutely magical and breathtaking. There is a lot going on there.”

“The big bright area on the left side of the heart shaped feature is informally called Sputnik Planum after the first spacecraft – Sputnik. Surrounding the Texas sized plain are steep mountain ranges that are as tall as the Rockies in Colorado.”

What are Pluto’s plains and mountains comprised of?

“We know that the mountain ranges are not made of the same stuff as the planum, or plains. The plains are made of nitrogen. But nitrogen is too soft a material to build mountains out of, even in Pluto’s weak gravity.”

“So the mountains must be made of something else stronger. Rock and water ice are the two most likely possibilities. But they are most likely water ice, the lighter stuff. Because the rock has almost certainly sunk to the center of Pluto and the ice has floated to the top and formed the mantle and perhaps the crust of Pluto.”

“So we think the volatiles like the nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide you see there and that shifts around with the seasons and interacts with the atmosphere – is just a veneer. It’s just a coating on the surface. And in some places its very thin and looks like it is breaking up on the margins. In other places it may be quite thick, maybe even kilometers thick.”

“We’ll see when we have more data!” exclaimed Stern.

“The data downlink will take over a year to get all the data to the ground [on Earth].”

“Over 50 gigabits of science data from the Pluto system needs to be sent back. The Pluto flyby took place on the 50th anniversary of NASA’s first flyby of Mars by Mariner IV. New Horizons dataset amounted to several thousand times more data collected compared to what Mariner IV sent back during its first flyby of Mars,” Stern elaborated.

“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” says Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”

How much data has been returned so far varies by instrument.

“The average across all the entire science payload is only about 5 or 6 percent so far,” Stern explained.

“All the flyby data from the two plasma instruments – PEPSI and SWAP – and the Student Dust Counter instrument is back on the ground, because they were small datasets.”

“But less than 3% of the ALICE UV spectrometer data is back so far. And for the other imaging instruments its similar.”

“So it’s going to take about another year to send all the data back!”

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

Stern informed that the team has submitted a paper to the journal Science and plans a large series of technical scientific presentations at upcoming meetings, including the Division of Planetary Sciences Meeting in Washington in November.

And New Horizons is in excellent shape to get those 50 gigabits of data back to the eagerly waiting researchers since all the spacecraft systems are operating normally.

“The spacecraft is doing very well,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), during the Weekly Space Hangout.

“It’s very healthy and we are getting back gobs of data – causing a flurry of emails among the science team.”

“It’s been a good ride and we had a good flyby of Jupiter too [along the way].”

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 mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
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 mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

New Horizons also discovered that Pluto is the largest known body beyond Neptune – and thus reigns as the “King of the Kuiper Belt!”

As of today, Sept. 14, New Horizons is 2 months past the Pluto flyby and already over 73 million kilometers ( over 45 million miles) beyond Pluto and continuing its journey into the Kuiper Belt, the third realm of worlds in our solar system.

The science team plans to target New Horizons to fly by another much smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in 2019 after recently selecting the object dubbed PT1, for Potential Target 1, based on images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“Since the flyby, we have been planning for the extended mission which we will propose to NASA next year,” Stern explained. NASA will then decide whether to approve and fund the new KBO mission proposal.

“We expect to do an engine burn for that [new KBO target] next month [in October]. The KBO flyby will take place about a billion miles beyond Pluto at about 44 AU.”

The actual flyby distance of New Horizons from the KBO is yet to be determined. Stern thinks it could perhaps be much closer, but all those details still need to be worked out.

NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

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

Ken Kremer

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last
The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below.  This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.  Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context.  Annotated with place names.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below. This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context. Annotated with place names. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ 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.  Right side inset from New Horizons team focuses on Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature.  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. Right side inset from New Horizons team focuses on Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Pluto’s Heart of the Heart Swathed in Newly Discovered Icy Mountains and Vast Plains

APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY, LAUREL, MD – The highest resolution images ever taken of Pluto by humanity’s first spacecraft ever to visit the last planet in our solar system revealed unanticipated new discoveries of ice mountains as tall as the Rockies and vast craterless plains spanning hundreds of miles (kilometers) across – are now shown in our newly created context mosaic (featured above and below) of the heart-shaped ‘Tombaugh Regio’ area that dominates the alien planet’s surface.

These stunning and astoundingly young features only now unveiled on Pluto’s surface were created in very recent times, geologically speaking said top scientists leading NASA’s resounding successful New Horizons mission, at a media briefing on July 17.

This first high resolution surface mosaic was created from a newly unveiled series of black and white images centered in the Heart of Pluto’s huge ‘Heart, including the ice mountains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ and icy plains of ‘Norgay Montes.’

They were captured by New Horizons’ high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 as the probe barreled past the Pluto-Charon binary planet system only four days ago on Tuesday, July 14, at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph).

These highest resolution LORRI images focused on the “Heart of the Heart” of Pluto have now been stitched into a mosaic by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Pluto’s bright heart-shaped region has now been informally renamed “Tombaugh Regio,’ announced John Spencer, New Horizons science team co-investigator at the post flyby media briefing on July 15.

The mosaic of Pluto’s ‘Tombaugh Regio’ is based on the initial imagery released so far as of July 17.

This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

A pair of high resolution LORRI images was aimed at areas now informally named Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) and Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain).

Norgay Montes is informally named for Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest, along with Sir Edmund Hillary. Sputnik Planum is informally named for Earth’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

The two LORRI images are draped over a wider, lower resolution view of Tombaugh Regio – in annotated and unannotated versions. This is highest resolution currently available.

To the left of the mosaic are two small inserts showing possible “wind streaks” say the researchers.

To the right of the mosaic is a global view of Pluto showing the location of Tombaugh Regio and also outlined to show the precise location of the high resolution LORRI mosaic.

Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.   Inset at left shows possible wind streaks.  Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at left shows possible wind streaks. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The LORRI images were taken from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet about 1.5 hours prior to the closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14. The images easily resolve structures smaller than a mile across.

The frozen region of Norgay Montes is situated north of Pluto’s icy mountain range at Sputnik Planum.

“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”

“The landscape is astoundingly amazing. There are a few ancient impact craters on Pluto. But other areas like “Tombaugh Regio” show no craters. The landform change processes are occurring into current geologic times.”

“There are no impact craters in a frozen area north of Pluto’s icy mountains we are now informally calling ‘Sputnik Planum’ after Earth’s first artificial satellite.”

New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise -- a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.  Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise — a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

‘Sputnik Planum’ is composed of a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments. The polygonal shaped areas are roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs based on a quick look at the data.

The mountain ranges height rival those of the Rockies, says Moore.

The new LORRI close-ups show the icy mountain range has peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface, announced John Spencer, New Horizons science team co-investigator at the media briefing.

“It’s a very young surface, probably formed less than 100 million years old,’ said Spencer. “It may be active now.”

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

“Judging from the absence of impact craters, it’s clear that Sputnik Planum couldn’t possibly be more than 100 million years old, and possibly is still being shaped to this day by geologic processes,” noted Moore. “This could be only a week old for all we know.”

During the fast flyby encounter, the New Horizons spacecraft pointed its suite of seven science instruments exclusively on all the bodies in the Pluto system, to maximize the capture of scientific data, as quickly as possible, and store it onto its two solid state digital recorders for later playback.

A major challenge for the mission is the rather slow “downlink” transmission of data back to Mission Control on Earth. Since the average “downlink” is only about 2 kilobits per second via its two transmitters, it will take about 16 months to send all the flyby data back to Earth.

Therefore the team has carefully selected just a few of the highest resolution images and other key instrument data for quick playback. The remaining flyby data will be prioritized for streaming.

“Over 50 gigabits of data were collected during the encounter and flyby periods,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, said during the July 17 media briefing.

“So far less than 1 gigabit of data has been returned.”

New Horizons 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.

If the spacecraft remains healthy as expected, the science team plans to target New Horizons to fly by another smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as soon as 2018.

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Last, Best Look at Pluto’s Far Side and Four Perplexing Spots: 2 Days Out from Flyby

New Horizons’ last look at Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere reveals the highest resolution view of four intriguing darks spots for decades to come. This image, taken early the morning of July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Story updated[/caption]

Today (July 11) we got our last, best and clearest look at a quartet of perplexing dark spots on Pluto’s far side from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft – now just two days and two million miles (4 million km) out from history’s first ever up close flyby of the Pluto system on Tuesday, July 14.

The four puzzling spots (see above) are located on the hemisphere of Pluto which always faces its largest moon, Charon, and have captivated the scientists and public alike. Pluto and Charon are gravitationally locked with an orbital period of 6.4 days.

Over only the past few days, we are finally witnessing an amazing assortment of geological wonders emerge into focus from these never before seen worlds – as promised by the New Horizons team over a decade ago.

Be sure to take a good hard look at the image, because these spots and Pluto’s Charon-facing hemisphere will not be visible to New Horizons cameras and spectrometers during the historic July 14 encounter as the spacecraft whizzes by the binary worlds at speeds of some 30,800 miles per hour (more than 48,600 kilometers per hour) for their first up close reconnaissance.

And it’s likely to be many decades before the next visitor from Earth arrives at the frigid worlds at the far flung reaches of our solar system for a longer look, hopefully from orbit.

“The [July 11] image is the last, best look that anyone will have of Pluto’s far side for decades to come,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

The image of the mysterious spots was taken earlier today (July 11) by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a distance of 2.5 million miles (4 million kilometers) from Pluto, and just released by NASA. The image resolution is 10 miles per pixel. One week ago it was only 40 miles per pixel.

They were first seen only in very recent LORRI images as Pluto’s disk finally was resolved and are located in a Missouri sized area about 300 miles (480 kilometers) across and above the equatorial region.

But until today they were still rather fuzzy – see image below from July 3! What a difference a few million miles (km) makes!

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

“The Pluto system is totally unknown territory,” said Dr. John Spencer, New Horizons co-investigator at today’s (July 11) daily live briefing from NASA and the New Horizons team.

“Pluto is like nowhere we’ve even been before. It is unlike anything we’ve visited before.”

Now, with the $700 million NASA planetary probe millions of miles closer to the double planet, the picture resolution has increased dramatically and the team can at least speculate.

Researchers say the quartet of “equally spaced” dark splotches are “suggestive of polygonal shapes” and the “boundaries between the dark and bright terrains are irregular and sharply defined.”

“It’s weird that they’re spaced so regularly,” says New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

However their nature remains “intriguing” and truly “unknown.”

“We can’t tell whether they’re plateaus or plains, or whether they’re brightness variations on a completely smooth surface,” added Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California.

“It’s amazing what we are seeing now in the images, showing us things we’ve never seen before,” said Spencer.

“Every day we see things we never knew before. We see these crazy black and white patterns. And we have no idea what these mean.”

Answering these questions and more is what the encounter is all about.

Pluto is just chock full of mysteries, with new ones emerging every day as New Horizons at last homes in on its quarry, and the planet grows from a spot to an enlarging disk with never before seen surface features, three billion miles from Earth after an interplanetary journey of some nine and a half years.

“We see circular things and wonder are those craters? Or are they something else,” Spencer elaborated.

“We saw circular features on Neptune’s moon Triton that are not craters. So we should know in a few days . But right now we are just having an awful lot of fun just speculating. It’s just amazing.”

Until a few days ago, we didn’t know that “the other Red Planet” had a big bright heart and a dark ‘whale-shaped’ feature – see my earlier articles; here and here.

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.   The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument.   Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
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. The LORRI image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

“When we combine images like this of the far side with composition and color data the spacecraft has already acquired but not yet sent to Earth, we expect to be able to read the history of this face of Pluto,” Moore explained.

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.

The 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).

Pluto is the last of the nine classical planets to be explored up close and completes the initial the initial reconnaissance of the solar system nearly six decades after the dawn of the space age. It represents a whole new class of objects.

“Pluto is a member of a whole new family of objects,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, in today’s live Pluto update.

“We call that the Kuiper Belt. And it is the outer solar system.”

New Horizons is equipped with a suite of seven science instruments gathering data during the approach and encounter phases with the Pluto system.

Graphic shows data gathered by New Horizons particle and plasma science instruments from 2 million miles out on July 11, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Graphic shows data gathered by New Horizons particle and plasma science instruments from 2 million miles out on July 11, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

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

Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million km) away. This annotated version shows the large dark feature nicknamed "the whale" that straddles Pluto's equator, a swirly band and a curious polygonal outline. At lower is a reference globe showing Pluto’s orientation in the image, with the equator and central meridian in bold. Credit:  NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million km) away. This annotated version shows the large dark feature nicknamed “the whale” that straddles Pluto’s equator, a swirly band and a curious polygonal outline. At lower is a reference globe showing Pluto’s orientation in the image, with the equator and central meridian in bold. 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: