In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Since that time, the spacecraft’s mission was extended so it could make its way farther into the outer Solar System and become the first spacecraft to explore some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). It’s first objective will be the KBO known as 2014 MU69, which was recently given the nickname “Ultima Thule” (“ultima thoo-lee”).
In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Since that time, the spacecraft’s mission was extended so it could make its way farther into the outer Solar System and explore some Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). Another historic first, the spacecraft will study these ancient objects in the hopes of learning more about the formation and evolution of the Solar System.
By Jan. 1st, 2019, it will have arrived at its first destination, the KBO known as 2014 MU69. And with the help of the public, this object recently received the nickname “Ultima Thule” (“ultima thoo-lee”). This object, which orbits our Sun at a distance of about 1.6 billion km (1 billion miles) beyond Pluto, will be the most primitive object ever observed by a spacecraft. It will also be the farthest encounter ever achieved in the history of space exploration.
In 2015, MU69 was identified as one of two potential destinations for the New Horizons mission and was recommended to NASA by the mission science team. It was selected because of the immense opportunities for research it presented. As Alan Stern, the Principle Investigator (PI) for the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), indicated at the time:
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by. Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
Originally, the KBO was thought to be a spherical chunk of ice and rock. However, in August of 2017, new occultation observations made by telescopes in Argentina led the team to conclude that MU69 could actually be a large object with a chunk taken out of it (an “extreme prolate spheroid”). Alternately, they suspected that it might be two objects orbiting very closely together or touching – aka. a close or contact binary.
Given the significance of New Horizons‘ impending encounter with this object, its only proper that it receive a an actual name. In medieval literature and cartography, Thule was a mythical, far-northern island. Ultima Thule means “beyond Thule”, which essentially means that which lies beyond the borders of the known world. This name is highly appropriate, since the exploration of a KBO is something that has never been done before.
As Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute, said in a recent NASA press release:
“MU69 is humanity’s next Ultima Thule. Our spacecraft is heading beyond the limits of the known worlds, to what will be this mission’s next achievement. Since this will be the farthest exploration of any object in space in history, I like to call our flyby target Ultima, for short, symbolizing this ultimate exploration by NASA and our team.”
The campaign to name this object was launched by NASA and the New Horizons team in early November, and was hosted by the SETI Institute and led by Mark Showalter – an institute fellow and member of the New Horizons science team. The campaign involved 115,000 participants from around the world who nominated 34,000 names – 37 of which were selected for a final ballot based on their popularity.
These included eight names suggested by the New Horizons team and 29 nominated by the public. The team then narrowed its selection to the 29 publicly-nominated names and gave preference to names near the top of the polls. Along with Ultima Thule, other names that were considered included Abeona, Pharos, Pangu, Rubicon, Olympus, Pinnacle and Tiramisu.
After a five-day extension was granted to accommodate more voting, the campaign wrapped up on Dec. 6th, 2017. Ultima Thule received about 40 nominations from the public and was among those that got the most votes. “We are grateful to those who proposed such an interesting and inspirational nickname,” Showalter said. “They deserve credit for capturing the true spirit of exploration that New Horizons embodies.”
This name, however, is not a permanent one, but a working one which reflects the fact that MU69 is beyond Pluto – once held to be the most distant planet of the Solar System. Once the flyby is complete, NASA and the New Horizons team will submit a formal name to the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The name will depend on whether or not MU69 is a single body, a binary pair, or multiple objects.
Further Reading: NASA
Welcome, come in to the 497th Carnival of Space! The Carnival is a community of space science and astronomy writers and bloggers, who submit their best work each week for your benefit. I’m Susie Murph, part of the team at Universe Today and CosmoQuest. So now, on to this week’s stories!
Continue reading “Carnival of Space #497”
On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by conducting the first flyby of Pluto. This represented the culmination of a nine year journey, which began on January 19th, 2006 – when the spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. And before the mission is complete, NASA hopes to send the spacecraft to investigate objects in the Kuiper Belt as well.
To mark the 11th anniversary of the spacecraft’s launch, members of the New Horizons team took part in panel a discussion hosted by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) located in Laurel, Maryland. The event was broadcasted on Facebook Live, and consisted of team members speaking about the highlights of the mission and what lies ahead for the NASA spacecraft.
The live panel discussion took place on Thursday, Sept. 19th at 4 p.m. EST, and included Jim Green and Alan Stern – the director the Planetary Science Division at NASA and the principle investigator (PI) of the New Horizons mission, respectively. Also in attendance was Glen Fountain and Helene Winters, New Horizons‘ project managers; and Kelsi Singer, the New Horizons co-investigator.
In the course of the event, the panel members responded to questions and shared stories about the mission’s greatest accomplishments. Among them were the many, many high-resolution photographs taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph and Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) cameras. In addition to providing detailing images of Pluto’s surface features, they also allowed for the creation of the very first detailed map of Pluto.
Though Pluto is not officially designated as a planet anymore – ever since the XXVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, where Pluto was designated as a “dwarf planet” – many members of the team still consider it to be the ninth planet of the Solar System. Because of this, New Horizons‘ historic flyby was of particular significance.
As Principle Investigator Alan Stern – from the Southwestern Research Institute (SwRI) – explained in an interview with Inverse, the first phase of humanity’s investigation of the Solar System is now complete. “What we did was we provided the capstone to the initial exploration of the planets,” he said. “All nine have been explored with New Horizons finishing that task.”
Other significant discoveries made by the New Horizons mission include Pluto’s famous heart-shaped terrain – aka. Sputnik Planum. This region turned out to be a young, icy plain that contains water ice flows adrift on a “sea” of frozen nitrogen. And then there was the discovery of the large mountain and possible cryovolcano located at the tip of the plain – named Tombaugh Regio, (in honor of Pluto’s discovered, Clyde Tombaugh).
The mission also revealed further evidence of geological activity and cryovolcanism, the presence of hyrdocarbon clouds on Pluto, and conducted the very first measurements of how Pluto interacts with solar wind. All told, over 50 gigabits of data were collected by New Horizons during its encounter and flyby with Pluto. And the detailed map which resulted from it did a good job of capturing all this complexity and diversity. As Stern explained:
“That really blew away our expectations. We did not think that a planet the size of North America could be as complex as Mars or even Earth. It’s just tons of eye candy. This color map is the highest resolution we will see until another spacecraft goes back to Pluto.”
After making its historic flyby of Pluto, the New Horizons team requested that the mission receive an extension to 2021 so that it could explore Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). This extension was granted, and for the first part of the Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM), the spacecraft will perform a close flyby of the object known as 2014 MU69.
This remote KBO – which is estimated to be between 25 – 45 km (16-28 mi) in diameter – was one of two objects identified as potential targets for research, and the one recommended by the New Horizons team. The flyby, which is expected to take place in January of 2019, will involve the spacecraft taking a series of photographs on approach, as well as some pictures of the object’s surface once it gets closer.
Before the extension ends in 2021, it will continue to send back information on the gas, dust and plasma conditions in the Kuiper Belt. Clearly, we are not finished with the New Horizons mission, and it is not finished with us!
To check out footage from the live-streamed event, head on over to the New Horizons Facebook page.
Further Reading: NASA
The astronomer known worldwide for vigorously promoting the demotion of Pluto from its decades long perch as the 9th Planet, has now found theoretical evidence for a new and very distant gas giant planet lurking way beyond Pluto out to the far reaches of our solar system.
In an obvious reference to the planethood controversy, the proposed new planet is nicknamed ‘Planet Nine’ and its absolutely huge! Continue reading “Astronomers Find Theoretical Evidence for Distant Gas Giant Planet in Our Solar System”
“X” marks the spot that’s illustrative of “convective churning” resulting from subsurface planetary heating, as seen in a fascinating new super high resolution image received from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2015. Its situated at the very center of the left ventricle of Pluto’s huge “heart” – an icy flow plain that’s informally named “Sputnik Planum.”
The “X” feature – see image above – is located in an area of intersecting cells, shaped like polygons, on the plains of “Sputnik Planum” which are mostly comprised of frozen nitrogen ices.
Neptune is a truly fascinating world. But as it is, there is much that people don’t know about it. Perhaps it is because Neptune is the most distant planet from our Sun, or because so few exploratory missions have ventured that far out into our Solar System. But regardless of the reason, Neptune is a gas (and ice) giant that is full of wonder!
Below, we have compiled a list of 10 interesting facts about this planet. Some of them, you might already know. But others are sure to surprise and maybe even astound you. Enjoy!
Ice Volcanoes on Pluto?
The informally named feature Wright Mons, located south of Sputnik Planum on Pluto, is an unusual feature that’s about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high. It displays a summit depression (visible in the center of the image) that’s approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across, with a distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing. New Horizons scientists believe that this mountain and another, Piccard Mons, could have been formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute[/caption]
The possible discovery of a pair of recently erupting ice volcanoes on Pluto are among the unexpected “astounding” findings just unveiled by perplexed scientists with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, barely four months after the historic first flyby of the last unexplored planet in our solar system.
“Nothing like this has been seen in the deep outer solar system,” said Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader from NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, as the results so far were announced at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) this week in National Harbor, Maryland.
“The Pluto system is baffling us,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, at a news media briefing on Nov. 9.
Two large mountainous features tens of miles across and several miles high, have been potentially identified by the team as volcanoes.
They were found in terrain located south of Sputnik Planum – a vast area of smooth icy plains located within Pluto’s huge heart shaped region informally known as Tombaugh Regio. It may have formed very recently resulting from geologic activity within the past 10 million years.
The possible ice volcanoes, or cryovolcanoes, were found at two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains and identified from images taken by New Horizons as it became Earth’s first emissary to hurtle past the small planet on July 14, 2015.
“All of our flyby plans succeeded,” Stern stated at the briefing.
“All of the data sets are spectacular.
Scientists created 3-D topographic maps from the probes images and discovered the possible ice volcanoes – informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons.
Wright Mons, pictured above, is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high.
Both mountains appear to show summit depressions “with a large hole” visible in the center, similar to volcanoes on Earth. Scientists speculate “they may have formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface.”
The erupting Plutonian ices might be composed of a melted slurry of water ice, nitrogen, ammonia and methane.
The depression inside Wright Mons is approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across and exhibits a “distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing.”
“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing—a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA Ames, in a statement.
The team is quick to caution that the “interpretation of these features as volcanoes is tentative” and requires much more analysis.
“If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have travelled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.”
More than 50 papers about the Pluto system are being presented at the AAS meeting this week.
So far New Horizon has transmitted back only about 20 percent of the data gathered, according to mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system,” said Stern.
“Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”
The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.
Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap for a long time to come.
With 20 percent of the data now returned and more streaming back every day, the team is excited to debate what is all means.
“This is when the debates begin,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters, at the missions Nov 9 media briefing. “This is when the heated discussions begin. This is when the entire science community starts staying up throughout the night.”
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Even though the New Horizons spacecraft hasn’t officially been approved to do a flyby of a distant Kuiper Belt Object in about 3 years, the engineering team has now performed two maneuvers in a series of four to direct the spacecraft towards an ancient and distant KBO named 2014 MU69.
“Second of four engine burns to target our KBO was completed successfully!! Go New Horizons! Go NASA!” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern on Facebook.
Two more burns will occur within the next 8 days.
The 25-minute burn on October 25 was the largest propulsive maneuver ever conducted by New Horizons. The team said that the spacecraft is in excellent health as it continues to transmit data from the Pluto system flyby in July. It is currently zooming through deep space at more than 52,000 km/hr (32,000 miles per hour) and it is now about 122 million kilometers (76 million miles) past Pluto and 5.09 billion kilometers (3.16 billion miles) from Earth.
New Horizons must travel about a billion miles to get to 2014 MU69, which is also nicknamed “PT1” (for “Potential Target 1”) and if all continues to go well, the spacecraft is expected to reach the KBO on January 1, 2019.
“2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” Stern said back in August 2015 when the target was announced. “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”
The 2003 National Academy of Sciences’ Planetary Decadal Survey recommended that the first mission to the Kuiper Belt include flybys of Pluto and small KBOs, in order to sample the diversity of objects in that previously unexplored region of the solar system. PT1 is a completely different class of KBO than Pluto.
New Horizons has hydrazine-fueled thrusters, and it carries enough fuel for the flyby, but the team really wants to have the other two maneuvers carried out as scheduled on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, in order to make the fuel last as long as possible.
The New Horizons team will submit a formal proposal to NASA for the KBO flyby in early 2016. NASA officials have said the discussions on whether to approve this extended mission will take place in the larger context of the planetary science portfolio, i.e., to see if it fits in the budget.
Given the success of the Pluto system flyby, and the success so far of the maneuvers to send the spacecraft to PT1, it would be a grave mistake not to take advantage of this opportunity.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.