Kirk, Spock and Sulu Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before — Charon!

A big smile. That was my reaction to seeing the names of Uhura, Spock, Kirk and Sulu on the latest map of Pluto’s jumbo moon Charon. The monikers are still only informal, but new maps of Charon and Pluto submitted to the IAU for approval feature some of our favorite real life and sci-fi characters. Come on — Vader Crater? How cool is that?

Four naming themes were selected for Charon’s features, three of which are based on fiction — Fictional Explorers and Travelers, Fictional Origins and Destinations, Fictional Vessels — and one on Exploration Authors, Artists and Directors. Clicking on each link will bring up a list of proposed names.

This image contains the initial, informal names being used by the New Horizons team for the features and regions on the surface of Pluto. The IAU will still need to give final approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image contains the initial, informal names being used by the New Horizons team for the features and regions on the surface of Pluto. The IAU will still need to give final approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto’s features, in contrast, are named for both real people and places as well as mythological beings of underworld mythology. Clyde Tombaugh, the dwarf world’s discoverer, takes center stage, with his name appropriately spanning 990 miles (1,590 km) of  frozen terrain nicknamed the “heart of Pluto”. Perhaps the most intriguing region of Pluto, it’s home to what appear to be glaciers of nitrogen ice still mobile at temperatures around –390°F (–234°C).

A close-up slice of Plutonian landscape centered on Tombaugh Regio with informal names waiting for approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
A close-up slice of Plutonian landscape centered on Tombaugh Regio with informal names waiting for approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto, being a physically, historically and emotionally bigger deal than Charon, comes with six themes. I’ve listed a few examples for each:

* Space Missions and Spacecraft – Sputnik, Voyager, Challenger
* Scientists and Engineers 
– Tombaugh, Lowell, Burney (after Venetia Burney, the young girl who named Pluto)
* Historic Explorers – Norgay, Cousteau, Isabella Bird
* Underworld Beings 
– Cthulu, Balrog (from Lord of the Rings), Anubis (Egyptian god associated with the afterlife)
* Underworlds and Underworld Locales 
– Tartarus (Greek “pit of lost souls”), Xibalba (Mayan underworld), Pandemonium (capital of hell in Paradise Lost) 
* Travelers to the Underworld 
– Virgil (tour guide in Dante’s Divine Comedy), Sun Wukong (Monkey king of Chinese mythology), Inanna (ancient Sumerian goddess)

Global map of Pluto's moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Global map of Pluto’s moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

There’s nothing like a name. Not only do names make sure we’re all talking about the same thing, but they’re how we begin to understand the unique landscapes presented to us by Pluto and its wonderful system of satellites. To keep them all straight, astronomers at the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Planetary System Nomemclature are charged with choosing themes for each planet, asteroid or moon along with individual names for craters, canyons, mountains, volcanoes based on those themes. Astronomers help the group by providing suggested themes and names. In the case of the Pluto system, the public joined in to help the astronomers by participating in the Our Pluto Naming Campaign.

Craters and fissures on Charon photographed during the flyby. Credit: NASA
Craters and fissures (fossae) on Charon photographed during the flyby. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

If you’ve followed naming conventions over the years, you’ve noticed more Latin in use, especially when it comes to basic land forms. I took Latin in college and loved it, but since few of us speak the ancient language anymore, we’re often at a loss to understand what’s being described. What’s a ‘Krun Macula’ or ‘Soyuz Colles’?

Photo of Pluto's nitrogen ice flows in Tombaugh Regio also shows several clumps of
Image I dug out of New Horizon’s LORRI archive shows Pluto’s nitrogen ice flows in Tombaugh Regio also shows several clumps of “colles”. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The first name is the proper name, so Krun denotes the Mandean god of the underworld. The second name – in Latin – describes the land form. Here’s a list of terms to help you translate the Plutonian and Charonian landscapes (plurals in parentheses):

Regio (Regi): Region
Mons (Montes): Mountain
Collis (Colles): Hill
Chasma (Chasmae): Canyon
Terra (Terrae): Land
Fossa (Fossae): Depression or fissure
Macula (Maculae): Spot
Valles (Valles): Valley
Rupes (Rupes): Cliff
Linea (Linea): Line
Dorsum (Dorsa): Wrinkle ridge
Cavus (Cava): Cavity or pit

Another LORRI photo showing icy Tombaugh Regio butting up against. Credit: NASA
Another LORRI photo showing icy Tombaugh Regio butting up against rugged, mountainous (montes) terrain. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Got it? Great. “Take us out, Mr. Sulu!”

First Ever Geologic Map of Io: 425 Volcanoes, No Craters

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With billowing volcanoes, lava lakes and a sulfurous landscape, Jupiter’s moon Io is one of the most exotic and intriguing places in the Solar System. The geologic features of Io are now detailed in the first global geologic map ever made of this unusual and active planetary body. The map, published by the U. S. Geological Survey and created by scientists from the Planetary Science Institute and Arizona State University, shows the characteristics and relative ages of some of the most geologically unique and active volcanoes and lava flows ever documented in the Solar System.

Want to figure out where you’d like to go mountain climbing or conduct a little volcanology on Io?

“One of the reasons for making this map was to create a tool for continuing scientific studies of Io, and a tool for target planning of Io observations on future missions to the Jupiter system,” said David Williams, who led the six-year research project to produce the geologic map.

On this detailed map there are 19 different surface material types. You can see all sorts of volcanic features including: paterae (caldera-like depressions), lava flow fields, tholi (volcanic domes), and plume deposits, in various shapes, sizes and colors, as well as high mountains and large expanses of sulfur- and sulfur dioxide-rich plains. The mapping identified 425 paterae, or individual volcanic centers.

“Our mapping has determined that most of the active hot spots occur in paterae, which cover less than 3 percent of Io’s surface. Lava flow fields cover approximately 28 percent of the surface, but contain only 31 percent of hot spots,” said Williams. “Understanding the geographical distribution of these features and hot spots, as identified through this map, are enabling better models of Io’s interior processes to be developed.”

However, there is one feature you won’t see on the geologic map: impact craters.

“Io has no impact craters; it is the only object in the Solar System where we have not seen any impact craters, testifying to Io’s very active volcanic resurfacing,” says Williams.

Although Io is so volcanically active — more than 25 times more volcanically active than Earth — most of the long-term surface changes resulting from volcanism are restricted to less than 15 percent of the surface, mostly in the form of changes in lava flow fields or within paterae.

Interestingly, the new map comes from fairly old – but enhanced – data. It combines the best images from the Voyager 1 and 2 missions (acquired in 1979) as well as the Galileo orbiter (1995-2003), and is unique from other USGS-published planetary geologic maps because surface features were mapped and characterized from using four distinct global image mosaics.

“Because of the non-uniform coverage of Io by multiple Voyager and Galileo flybys, including a variety of lighting conditions, it was absolutely necessary to use the different mosaics to identify specific geologic features, such as separating mountains and paterae from plains, and separating the colored plume deposits from the underlying geologic units,” Williams said.

Though the geology history of Io has been studied in detail for several decades, completion of the geologic map establishes a critical framework for integrating and comparing diverse studies.

Because of Io’s active nature, this map may not be completely accurate to Io’s current appearance. “Because Io is so active, and continues to be studied by Earth-based telescopes, we are doing something different than producing just the paper geologic map,” says Williams. “We are also making an online Io database, to include the geologic map, the USGS mosaics, and all useful Galileo spacecraft observations of Io. This database, when completed later this year, will allow users to track the history of surface changes due to volcanic activity. We also have proposals submitted to NASA to include in our Io database Earth-based telescopic observations and images from the February 2007 NASA New Horizons spacecraft flyby, to create a single online source to study the history of Io volcanism.”

The geologic map can be downloaded from the USGS here.

Source: ASU

Get Your Own Unprecedented 3-D View of the Moon

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Love 3-D images? Interested in maps? Want to explore the Moon? Then a new Kickstarter project may be just what you are looking for. Jeffrey Ambroziak, creator of a specialized 3-D map projection method, will be producing what he calls the first true 3-D map of the Moon, and he is offering space enthusiasts the chance to get either digital or paper copies of the map, created from recently released data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Interest in the project has skyrocketed, and while the goal of $5,000 has already been reached by more than double that amount, Ambroziak is now thinking of what more he can offer to backers of his PopView 3D Moon Map.

“We’re at a place now where you can do some interesting research on your own, and it doesn’t necessarily require a large institution,” Ambroziak said by phone. “I love the idea of using Kickstarter to give interested and passionate space aficionados the opportunity to work with us.”

The maps will include not only 3-D views of the Moon’s surface, but on the “front side” will be “National Geographic-style” graphics and information.

Ambroziak said the backers who fund his project will be instrumental choosing the mapping locations and the information that is included.

“This will be very a very collaborative effort to pick the things we will put on the front of the map and the areas that we actually map in 3-D,” he told Universe Today. “As the Kickstarter project description makes clear, we are going to leverage the knowledge of all involved to produce a map that is as informative as it is innovative while letting everyone experience our excitement as the project takes shape. And in the end, everyone gets a copy of the map!”

Ambroziak added, “In the current age with NASA’s budget cuts and the space agency looking towards private enterprise more, there is now a place for interested people to create very interesting and useful space products. We spend billions of dollars to gather incredibly beautiful data of the Moon and Mars and much of it just sits around. We are looking to do our part to bring this data to life, and I’m proof of that you don’t have to sit around and wait for NASA to make an image from LROC data. We don’t have to wait anymore, we can do it ourselves.”

Ambroziak has been overwhelmed that his project is so popular. “I love the idea of the feedback that I’m getting already from people who are so excited about this project,” he said. Most gratifying was a top level pledge of $1,200 from former astronaut and shuttle pilot William Readdy, pledged $1200 to the project who wished Ambroziak “godspeed” in the effort. “It’s pretty neat when astronauts see the importance of what is being attempted,” Ambroziak said.

His patented Ambroziak Infinite Perspective Projection (AIPP) is a map projection method used for three-dimensional stereo visualization of geographic data, which allows viewers to see precise representation of data in 3-D, no matter what angle or distance the image is being viewed. He detailed the method in his book, Infinite Perspectives: Two Thousand Years of Three-Dimensional Mapmaking, (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999) and has previously created 3-D maps of Antarctica and Mars, which have been displayed at museums such as the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

I asked Ambroziak how far along he was with the project.

“I have downloaded all of the LROC imagery and digital elevation information,” he said. “I have further processed the image data to stretch out the contrast, computed shadows from the digital elevation model, and mixed the computed shadows back into the imagery to improve appearances. AIPP is then applied as desired to create 3D images. Specifically, imagery and digital elevation data is combined in accordance with a few chosen AIPP parameters (vertical exaggeration, view plane elevation, etc.) to produce the AIPP map.”

But that is only the technical part of the project, as the “front side” of the maps will be more artistic.

“I will be able to poll the backers for their preferred area of interest,” he said. “In short, you back the project, you have a say in the mapping of the Moon! Ultimately, I would like to perform a systematic mapping of the entire surface of the Moon in accordance with the USGS quad-map nomenclature and format. This is just the first step. This is Kickstarter – not start and then end.”

Check out the Kickstarter page for the “prizes” or incentives are for the various levels of funding. They range from getting a digital copy emailed to you, to complete posters, to an invitation to dinner for you and a guest with the Ambroziak, with food and drinks on him.

NASA, Japan Release Most Complete Topographic Map of Earth

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Topographic maps are some of the most used and valuable maps for both government and the general public. Now, NASA and Japan have released a new digital topographic map of Earth Monday that covers more of our planet than ever before and was created from nearly 1.3 million individual stereo-pair images collected by the Japanese Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, or ASTER, on board NASA’s Terra spacecraft. It is available online to users everywhere at no cost.

“This is the most complete, consistent global digital elevation data yet made available to the world,” said Woody Turner, ASTER program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This unique global set of data will serve users and researchers from a wide array of disciplines that need elevation and terrain information.”
ASTER is one of five Earth-observing instruments launched on Terra in December 1999. ASTER acquires images from the visible to the thermal infrared wavelength region, with spatial resolutions ranging from about 50 to 300 feet.

According to Mike Abrams, ASTER science team leader at JPL the new topographic information will be of value throughout the Earth sciences and has many practical applications. “ASTER’s accurate topographic data will be used for engineering, energy exploration, conserving natural resources, environmental management, public works design, firefighting, recreation, geology and city planning, to name just a few areas,” Abrams said.

Click here for visualizations of the new ASTER topographic data.

Click here to download the ASTER global digital elevation model.

NASA and Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, known as METI, developed the data set.

Global map from ASTER. Credit: NASA, METI
Global map from ASTER. Credit: NASA, METI

Previously, the most complete topographic set of data publicly available was from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. That mission mapped 80 percent of Earth’s landmass, between 60 degrees north latitude and 57 degrees south. The new ASTER data expands coverage to 99 percent, from 83 degrees north latitude and 83 degrees south. Each elevation measurement point in the new data is 98 feet apart.

The ASTER data fill in many of the voids in the shuttle mission’s data, such as in very steep terrains and in some deserts,” said Michael Kobrick, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “NASA is working to combine the ASTER data with that of the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and other sources to produce an even better global topographic map.”

Source: NASA