On December 31st, 2018, NASA’sNew Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) named Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). This came roughly two and a half years after New Horizons became the first mission in history to conduct a flyby of Pluto. This latest encounter led to some stunning images of the KBO as the spacecraft made it’s approach.
But of course, these were not the last images New Horizons was going to capture of this object. While making its flyby of Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day, the spacecraft took a number of images that revealed something very interesting about Ultima Thule’s shape. Rather than consisting of two spheres that are joined together, Ultima Thule is actually made up of two segments – one that looks like a pancake, the other a walnut.
On December 31st, 2018, NASA’sNew Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) named Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). This came roughly two and a half years after New Horizons became the first mission in history to conduct a flyby of Pluto. Much like the encounter with Pluto, the probe’s rendezvous with Ultima Thule led to a truly stunning encounter image.
And now, thanks to a team of researchers from the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL), this image has been enhanced to provide a more detailed and high-resolution look at Ultima Thule and its surface features. Thanks to these efforts, scientists may be able to learn more about the history of this object and how it was formed, which could tell us a great deal about the early days of the Solar System.
On December 31st, 2018, NASA and the New Horizon‘s team (plus millions of people watching the live stream at home) rang in the New Year by watching theNew Horizons mission make the first rendezvous in history with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). About thirty minutes after the probe conducted its flyby of Ultima Thule (2014 MU69), the mission controllers were treated to the first clear images ever taken of a KBO.
Since the first approach photographs were released (which were pixilated and blurry), the New Horizons team has released new images from the spacecraft that show Ultimate Thule in color and greater detail. It’s appearance, which resembles that of a snowman, beautifully illustrates the kinds of processes that created our Solar System roughly four and a half billion years ago.
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 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In addition to revealing things about the planet’s atmosphere, its geology and system of moons, the probe also provided the first clear images of the surface of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Because of this, scientists are now able to study Pluto and Charon’s many curious surface features and learn more about their evolution.
Another interesting thing that has resulted from this surface imaging has been the ability to name these features. Recently, the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclatureofficially approved of a dozen names that had been proposed by NASA’s New Horizons team. These names honor legendary explorers and visionaries, both real and fictitious, and include science fiction authors Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke.
Aside from being Pluto’s largest moon, Charon is also one of the larger bodies in the Kuiper Belt. Because of its immense size, Charon does not orbit Pluto in the strictest sense. In truth, the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon system is outside Pluto, meaning the two bodies almost orbit each other. The moon also has a wealth of features, which include valleys, crevices, and craters similar to what have been seen on other moons.
For some time, the New Horizons team has been using a series of informal names to describe Charon’s many features. The team gathered most of them during the online public naming campaign they hosted in 2015. Known as “Our Pluto“, this campaign consisted of people from all over the world contributed their suggestions for naming features on Pluto and Charon.
The New Horizons team also contributed their own suggestions and (according to the IAU) was instrumental in moving the new names through approval. As Dr. Alan Stern, the New Horizon team leader, told Universe Today via email: “We conduced a public feature name bank process in 2015 before flyby. Once flyby was complete our science team created a naming proposal for specific features and sent it to IAU.”
A similar process took place last year, where the IAU officially adopted 14 place names that were suggested by the New Horizons team – many of which were the result of the online naming campaign. Here too, the names were those that the team had been using informally to describe the many regions, mountain ranges, plains, valleys and craters that were discovered during the spacecraft’s flyby.
The names that were ultimately selected honored the spirit of epic exploration, which the New Horizons mission demonstrated by being the first probe to reach Pluto. As such, the names that were adopted honored travelers, explorers, scientists, pioneering journeys, and mysterious destinations. For example, Butler Mons honors Octavia E. Butler, a celebrated author and the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur fellowship.
Similarly, Clarke Montes honors Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the prolific writer and futurist who co-wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he later turned into a series of novels). Stanley Kubrik, who produced and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also honored with the feature Kubrik Mons. Meanwhile, several craters were named in honor of fictional characters from famous stories and folklore.
The Revati Crater is named after the main character in the Hindu epic narrative Mahabharata while the Nasreddin Crater is named for the protagonist in thousands of folktales told throughout the Middle East, southern Europe and parts of Asia. Nemo Crater honors the captain of the Nautilus in Jule’s Verne’s novels Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874).
The Pirx Crater is name after the main character in a series of short stories by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, while the Dorothy Crater takes its name from the protagonist in The Wizard of Oz, one of several children’s stories by L. Frank Baum that was set in this magical land.
As Rita Schulz, chair of the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, commented, “I am pleased that the features on Charon have been named with international spirit.” Dr. Alan Stern expressed similar sentiments. When asked if he was happy with the new names that have been approved, he said simply, “Very.”
Even though the encounter with the Pluto system happened almost three years ago, scientists are still busy studying all the information gathered during the historic flyby. In addition, the New Horizons spacecraft will be making history again in the not-too-distant future. At present, the spacecraft is making its way farther into the outer Solar System with the intention of rendezvousing with two Kuiper Belt Objects.
On Jan. 1st, 2019, it will rendezvous with its first destination, the KBO known as 2014 MU69 (aka. “Ultima Thule“). This object will be the most primitive object ever observed by a spacecraft, and the encounter will the farthest ever achieved in space exploration. Before this intrepid exploration mission is complete, we can expect that a lot more of the outer Solar System will be mapped and named.
This week, we return to our starting point, where Astronomy Cast began: Pluto. 11 years on, we have a whole new appreciate for the dwarf planet Pluto. We’ve visited it, probed it and taken pictures. It’s time for an update.
It was two years ago this morning that we awoke to see the now iconic image of Pluto that the New Horizons spacecraft had sent to Earth during the night. You, of course, know the picture I’m talking about – the one with a clear view of the giant heart-shaped region on the distant, little world (see above).
This image was taken just 16 hours before the spacecraft would make its closest approach to Pluto. Then, during that seemingly brief flyby (after traveling nine-and-a-half years and 3 billion miles to get there), the spacecraft gathered as much data as possible and we’ve been swooning over the images and pondering the findings from New Horizons ever since.
“This is what we came for – these images, spectra and other data types that are helping us understand the origin and the evolution of the Pluto system for the first time,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told me last year. “We’re seeing that Pluto is a scientific wonderland. The images have been just magical. It’s breathtaking.”
See a stunning new video created from flbyby footage in honor of the two-year anniversary of the flyby:
All the images have shown us that Pluto is a complex world with incredible diversity, in its geology and also in its atmosphere.
While the iconic “heart” image shows a clear and cloudless view of Pluto, a later image showed incredible detail of Pluto’s hazy atmosphere, with over two dozen concentric layers that stretches more than 200 km high in Pluto’s sky.
With all those layers and all that haze, could there be clouds on Pluto too?
This is a question Stern and his fellow scientists have been asking for a long time, actually, as they have been studying Pluto for decades from afar. Now with data from New Horizons, they’ve been able to look closer. While Stern and his colleagues have been discussing how they found possible clouds on Pluto for a few months, they have now detailed their findings in a paper published last month.
“Numerous planets in our solar system, including Venus, Earth, Mars, Titan, and all four of the giant planets possess atmospheres that contain clouds, i.e., discrete atmospheric condensation structures,” the team wrote in their paper. “This said, it has long been known that Pluto’s current atmosphere is not extensively cloudy at optical or infrared wavelengths.”
They explained that evidence for this came primarily from the “high amplitude and temporal stability of Pluto’s lightcurve,” however, because no high spatial resolution imagery of Pluto was possible before New Horizons, it remained to be seen if clouds occur over a small fraction of Pluto’s surface area.
But now with flyby images in hand, the team set out to do searches for clouds on Pluto, looking at all available imagery from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera, looking at both the disk of Pluto and near and on the limb. Since an automated cloud search was nearly impossible, it was all done by visual inspection of the images by the scientists.
They looked for features in the atmosphere that including brightness, fuzzy or fluffy-looking edges and isolated borders.
In all, they found seven bright, discrete possible cloud candidates. The seven candidates share several different attributes including small size, low altitude, they all were visible either early or late in the day local time, and were only visible at oblique geometry – which is basically a sideways look from the spacecraft.
Also, several cloud candidates also coincided with brighter surface features below, so the team is still pondering the correlation.
“The seven candidates are all similar in that they are very low altitude,” Stern said last fall at the Division of Planetary Sciences meeting, “and they are all low-lying, isolated small features, so no broad cloud decks or fields. When we map them over the surface, they all lie near the terminator, so they occur near dawn or dusk. This is all suggestive they are clouds because low-lying regions and dawn or dusk provide cooler conditions where clouds may occur.”
While haze was detected as high as 220 km, the possible clouds were found at very low altitudes. Stern told Universe Today that these possible, rare condensation clouds could be made of ethane, acetylene, hydrogen cyanide or methane under the right conditions. Stern added these clouds are probably short-lived phenomena – again, likely occurring only at dawn or dusk. A day on Pluto is 6.4 days on Earth.
But all in all, they concluded that at the current time Pluto’s atmosphere is almost entirely free of clouds – in fact the dwarf planet’s sky was 99% cloud free the day that New Horizons whizzed by.
“But if there are clouds, it would mean the weather on Pluto is even more complex than we imagined,” Stern said last year.
The seven cloud candidates cannot be confirmed as clouds because none are in the region where there was stereo imaging or other available ways to cross-check it. They concluded that further modeling would be needed, but specifically a Pluto orbiter mission would be the only way to “search for clouds more thoroughly than time and space and was possible during the brief reconnaissance flyby by New Horizons.”
While the New Horizons spacecraft was heading to Pluto, scientists from the mission used Hubble and other telescopes to try and find out more about the environment their spacecraft would be flying through. No one wanted New Horizons to run into unexpected dust or debris.
And now, as New Horizons prepares to fly past its next target, the Kuiper Belt Object known as 2014 MU69, mission scientists are using every tool at their disposal to examine this object and the surrounding region. The flyby will take place on January 1, 2019.
They’ve already uncovered some surprises.
On June 3, 2017, 2014 MU69 passed in front of a star – in an event called an occultation – providing a two-second glimpse of the object’s shadow.
More than 50 mission team members and collaborators traveled to South Africa and Argentina to catch the occultation, setting up telescopes to capture the event. They are now looking through more than 100,000 images of the occultation star that can be used to assess the environment around this Kuiper Belt object (KBO). In addition, the Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia, a space observatory of the European Space Agency (ESA) also observed the event.
The team said that while MU69 itself eluded direct detection, the June 3 data provided valuable and unexpected insights that have already helped New Horizons.
“These results are telling us something really interesting,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”
Mission scientist Simon Porter said on Twitter, “The upshot is that MU69 is probably not as big and dark as it could have been, and (more importantly) doesn’t seem to have rings or a dust cloud,” adding later that the “lack of dust was reassuring.”
Again, no one wants to New Horizons to run into any surprising dust or debris.
The team will be observing two more occultation events on July 10 and July 17, and Porter said they should get even better constraints from these next two events.
On July 10, NASA’s airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will use its 100-inch (2.5-meter) telescope to probe the space around MU69 for debris that might present a hazard to New Horizons as it flies by in 18 months.
On July 17, the Hubble Space Telescope also will check for debris around MU69, while team members set up another ground-based “fence line” of small mobile telescopes along the predicted ground track of the occultation shadow in southern Argentina to try to better constrain, or even determine, the size of MU69.
Initial estimates of MU69’s diameter, based primarily on data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope since the KBO’s discovery in 2014, fall in the 12-25-mile (20-40-kilometer) range. However, the latest data from the June occultation seem to imply it’s at or even below the smallest estimated sizes.
“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.”
You can see the star brightness, predicted shadow path and other tech specs for the July 10 and July 17 occultation events at the embedded links.
For decades, we could only imagine what the view of Pluto’s surface might be. Now, we have the real thing.
The images and data from the New Horizons’ mission flyby of Pluto in July 2015 showed us an unexpectedly stunning and geologically active world. Scientists have used words like ‘magical,’ ‘breathtaking’ and ‘scientific wonderland’ to describe the long-awaited close-up views of distant Pluto.
Even though scientists are still analyzing the data from New Horizons, ideas are starting to formulate about sending another spacecraft to Pluto, but with a long-term orbiter mission instead of a quick flyby.
“The next appropriate mission to Pluto is an orbiter, maybe equipped with a lander if we had enough funding to do both,” New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern told Universe Today in March.
This week, Stern has shared on social media that the New Horizons’ science team is meeting. But, separately, another group is starting to talk about a possible next mission to Pluto.
Getting a spacecraft to the outer regions of our solar system as fast as possible provides challenges, particularly in being able to slow down enough to enable going into orbit around Pluto. For the speedy and lightweight New Horizons, an orbital mission was impossible.
What propulsion system might make a Pluto orbiter and/or lander mission possible?
A few ideas are being tossed around.
Space Launch System
One concept takes advantage of NASA’s big, new Space Launch System (SLS), currently under development to enable human missions to Mars. NASA describes the SLS as “designed to be flexible and evolvable and will open new possibilities for payloads, included robotic scientific missions.” Even the first Block 1 version can launch 70 metric tons (later versions might be able to lift up to 130 metric tons.) Block 1 will be powered by twin five-segment solid rocket boosters and four liquid propellant engines, with a proposed 15% more thrust at launch than the Saturn V rockets that sent astronauts to the Moon.
But an orbiter mission to Pluto might not be the best use of the SLS alone.
It takes a lot of fuel to accelerate a vehicle to fast enough speed to get to Pluto in a reasonable amount of time. For example, New Horizons was the fastest spacecraft ever launched, using a souped-up Atlas V rocket with extra boosters, it performed a big burn when New Horizons departed Earth orbit. The lightweight spacecraft sped away from the Earth at 36,000 miles per hour (about 58,000 km/ hour), then used a gravity assist from Jupiter to boost New Horizons’ speed to 52,000 mph (83,600 km/h), traveling nearly a million miles (1.5 million km) a day in its 3 billion mile (4.8 billion km) journey to Pluto. The flight took nine and a half years.
“To enter Pluto orbit, a vehicle [like SLS] would have to boost up to that same speed, then turn around and decelerate for half the trip to arrive at Pluto with a net velocity of zero relative to the planet,” explained Stephen Fleming, an investor in several alt-space startups including XCOR Aerospace, Planetary Resources and NanoRacks. “Unfortunately, due to the tyranny of the rocket equation, you would have to carry all the fuel/propellant to decelerate with you at launch … which means accelerating the orbiter AND all that fuel in the initial phase. That requires logarithmically more fuel for the initial burn, and it turns out to be a LOT of fuel.”
Fleming told Universe Today that using the multi-billion dollar SLS to launch a Pluto orbiter, you would wind up launching an entire payload full of propellant just to accelerate and decelerate a tiny Pluto orbiter.
“That’s an extraordinarily expensive mission,” he said.
A better option might be to use a propulsion system of combined technologies. Stern mentioned a NASA study that looked at using the SLS as the launch vehicle and to boost the spacecraft towards Pluto, but then using an RTG (Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) powered ion engine to later brake for an orbital arrival.
An RTG produces heat from the natural decay of non-weapons-grade plutonium-238, and the heat is converted into electricity. An RTG ion engine would be a more powerful ion propulsion system than the current solar electric ion engine on the Dawn spacecraft, now orbiting Ceres, in the asteroid belt, plus it would enable operation in the outer solar system, far from the Sun. This nuclear powered ion engine would enable a speeding spacecraft to slow down and go into orbit.
“The SLS would boost you to fly out to Pluto,” Stern said, “and it would actually take two years to do the braking with ion propulsion.”
Stern said the flight time for such a mission to Pluto would be seven and a half years, two years faster than New Horizons.
The proposal uses a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) engine that has propulsion and power in one integrated device. DFD provides high thrust to allow for a flight time of about 4 years to Pluto, plus being able to send substantial mass to orbit, perhaps between 1000 to 8000 kg.
If this propulsion system works as planned, it could launch a Pluto orbiter and a lander (or possibly a rover), and provide enough power to maintain an orbiter and all its instruments, as well as beam a lot of power to a lander. That would enable the surface vehicle to beam back video to the orbiter because it would have so much power, according to Stephanie Thomas from Princeton Satellite Systems, Inc., who is leading the NIAC study.
“Our concept is generally received as, ‘wow, that sounds really cool! When can I get one?’” Thomas told Universe Today. She said her and her team chose a prototype Pluto orbiter and lander mission in their proposal because it’s a great example of what can be done with a fusion rocket.
Their fusion system uses a small linear array of solenoid coils, and their fuel of choice is deuterium helium 3, which has very low neutron production.
“It fits on a spacecraft, it fits on a launch vehicle,” Thomas explained in a NIAC symposium talk (her talk starts about 17:30 in the linked video). “There’s no lithium, or other dangerous materials, it produces very few damaging particles. It’s about the size of a minivan or small truck. Our system is cheaper and faster to develop than other fusion proposals.”
The Princeton team has been able to produce 300 millisecond pulses with their plasma heating experiment, orders of magnitude better than any other system.
“The biggest hurdle is the fusion itself,” she said. “We need to build a bigger experiment to finish proving the new heating method, which will require an order of magnitude more resources than the project has been receiving from the Department of Energy so far,” Thomas said via email. “However, it’s still small in the grand scheme of advanced technology projects, about $50 million.”
Thomas said that DARPA has spent much more on many technology initiatives that ended up canceled. And it’s also much less than other fusion technologies require for the same stage of research, since our machine is so small and has a simple coil configuration.” (Thomas said have a look at the budget for ITER, the international nuclear fusion research and engineering megaproject, currently running over $20 billion).
“To put it simply, we know our method heats electrons really well and can extrapolate to heating ions, but we need to build it and prove it,” she said.
Thomas and her team are currently working on the “balance of plant” technology – the subsystems that will be required to operate the engine in space, assuming the heating method works as currently predicted.
In terms of the Pluto mission itself, Thomas said there aren’t any particular hurdles on the orbiter itself, but it would involve scaling up a few technologies to take advantage of the very large amount of power available, such as the optical communications.
“We could dedicate tens or more kW of power to the communication laser, not 10 watts, [like current missions]” she said. “Another unique feature of our concept is being able to beam a lot of power to a lander. This would enable new classes of planetary science instruments like powerful drills. The technology to do this exists but the specific instruments need to be designed and built. Additional technology that will be needed that is under development in various industries are lightweight space radiators, next-generation superconducting wires, and long-term cryogenic storage for the deuterium fuel.”
Thomas said their NIAC research is going well.
“We were selected for the NIAC Phase II study, and are in contract negotiations now,” she said. “We are busy working on higher fidelity models of the engine’s thrust, designing components of the trajectory, and sizing the various subsystems, including the superconducting coils,” she said. “Our current estimates are that a single 1 to 10 MW engine will produce between 5 and 50 N thrust, at about 10,000 sec specific impulse.”
Laser Zapping to Pluto
Another futuristic propulsion possibility is the laser-based systems proposed by Yuri Milner for his Breakthrough Starshot proposal, where small cubesats could be zapped by lasers on Earth, basically “bug zapping” spacecraft to reach incredible speeds (possibly millions of miles/km per hour) to visit the outer solar system or beyond.
“It’s not really in the cards for us to use this kind of technology, because we’d have to wait decades just for this to be developed,” Stern said. “But if you could send lightweight, inexpensive spacecraft at speeds like one-10th the speed of light based on lasers from Earth. We could send these small spacecraft to hundreds or thousands of objects in the Kuiper Belts, and you’d be out there in a matter of two-and-a-half days. You could send a spacecraft past Pluto every day. That would be really game changing.”
The Realistic Future
But even if everyone agrees a Pluto orbiter should be done, the earliest possible date for such a mission is sometime between the early 2020s and the early 2030s. But it all depends on the recommendations put forth by the scientific community’s next decadal survey, which will suggest the most top-priority missions for NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
These Decadal Surveys are 10-year “roadmaps” that set science priorities and provide guidance on where NASA should send spacecraft and what types of missions they should be. The last Decadal Survey was published in 2011, and that set planetary science priorities through 2022. The next one, for 2023-2034, will likely be published in 2022.
The New Horizons mission was the result of the suggestions from the 2003 planetary science Decadal Survey, where scientists said visiting the Pluto system and worlds beyond was a top-priority destination.
So, if you’re dreaming of a Pluto orbiter, keep talking about it.