New Horizons Sees its Next Target for the First Time: Ultima Thule. Flyby Happens January 1, 2019

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”).

Continue reading “New Horizons Sees its Next Target for the First Time: Ultima Thule. Flyby Happens January 1, 2019”

Pluto’s Charon Gets Mountains Named After Sci-Fi Authors Octavia Butler and Arthur C. Clarke, as Well as Many Others From History and Legend. I Approve!

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 Nomenclature officially 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.

Artist’s impression of New Horizons’ close encounter with the Pluto–Charon system. Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

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.

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

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.”

Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering 2014 MU69 (Ultima Thule), a Kuiper Belt object that orbits 1.6 billion km (1 billion mi) beyond Pluto, on Jan. 1st, 2019. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

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.

Further Reading: IAU

Astronomy Cast Ep. 456: Pluto Revisited

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.

We usually record Astronomy Cast every Friday at 1:30 pm PDT / 4:30 pm EDT/ 20:30 PM UTC (8:30 GMT). You can watch us live on, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

Visit the Astronomy Cast Page to subscribe to the audio podcast!

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Two Years Ago Today: It Was a Clear Day on Pluto When New Horizons Flew By

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?

The smooth expanse of the informally named 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. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

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.

Seven Possible Cloud Candidates (PCCs) identified by the New Horizons team. Two of these images (3, 4) were taken by MVIC; the other five (1, 2, 5,
6, 7) were taken by LORRI. Arrows indicate each PCC. Credit: Stern et al, 2017.

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.”

If you’re dreaming of a Pluto orbiter, you can read about some possibilities of how to do it in our article from May of this year.

New Horizons Team Already Finding Surprises on Next Flyby Target

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.

A diagram of an occultation event, via the International Occultation Timing Association.

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.

Projected path of the 2014 MU69 occultation shadow, on July 10 (left) and July 17, 2017. Credit: Larry Wasserman/Lowell Observatory, via NASA.

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.

Source: New Horizons

The Next Pluto Mission: An Orbiter and Lander?

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.

An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

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.

RTG-Ion Propulsion

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.

An artist's illustration of NASA's Dawn spacecraft approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
An artist’s illustration of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft with its ion propulsion system approaching Ceres. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

“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.

Fusion Propulsion

But the most exciting option might be a proposed Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander mission currently under a Phase 1 study in NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

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.

A Direct Fusion Drive-powered spacecraft in orbit around Pluto, with the lander ready to deploy from the right-hand side. The large wing-like structures are the radiators and the optical communications lasers are on trusses extending from the center. Credits: Princeton Satellite Systems, NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

DFD is based on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC) fusion reactor that has been under development for 15 years at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

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.

Fusion-Enabled Pluto Orbiter and Lander. Credits: Stephanie Thomas.

“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.

New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby of Pluto taught us a lot about that planet. For one thing, Pluto is much more geophysically active than thought. Credit:

A Bored New Horizons Spacecraft Takes Part Time Job To Fill The Time

The New Horizons probe made history in July of 2015, being the first mission to ever conduct a close flyby of Pluto. In so doing, the mission revealed some never-before-seen things about this distant world. This included information about its many surface features, it’s atmosphere, magnetic environment, and its system of moons. It also provided images that allowed for the first detailed maps of the planet.

Having completed its rendezvous with Pluto, the probe has since been making its way towards its first encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – known as 2014 MU69. And in the meantime, it has been given a special task to keep it busy. Using archival data from the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a team of scientists is taking advantage of New Horizon‘s position to conduct measurements of the Cosmic Optical Background (COB).

The COB is essentially the visible light from other galaxies which shines beyond the edge of the Milky Way. By measuring this light, astronomers are able to learn a great deal about the locations of stars, the size and density of galaxies, and test theories about the structure and formation of the Universe. This is no easy task, mind you, as any measurements conducted from inside the Solar System are subject to interference.

The trajectory of the New Horizons probe, which has taken it past Pluto and into the Kuiper Belt. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

Whereas Earth-based telescopes experience interference from our atmosphere, space-based telescopes have to contend with the brightness of our Sun. In addition, interplanetary dust (IPD) has the effect of scattering light in the Solar System (known as Zodiacal Light) which can also obscure light coming from distant sources. But a probe like New Horizons, which is well into the outer Solar System, is not subject to such interference.

Hence why a team of researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), UC Irvine and UC Berkeley, chose to use its data to measure the COB. Their study, titled “Measurement of the cosmic optical background using the long range reconnaissance imager on New Horizons“, was recently published in Nature Communications.

For the sake of this study, the team analyzed LORRI data obtained during NH’s cruise phase between Jupiter and Uranus. After using data from four different isolated fields in the sky (captured between 2007 and 2010), the team was able to obtain a statistical upper limit on the optical background’s brightness.

The study’s lead author, Michael Zevkov, is an assistant professor in RIT’s School of Physics and Astronomy and a member of RIT’s Center for Detectors and Future Photon Initiative. As he stated in an RIT press release:

“This result shows some of the promise of doing astronomy from the outer solar system. What we’re seeing is that the optical background is completely consistent with the light from galaxies and we don’t see a need for a lot of extra brightness; whereas previous measurements from near the Earth need a lot of extra brightness. The study is proof that this kind of measurement is possible from the outer solar system, and that LORRI is capable of doing it.”

Measuring the light from the Cosmic Optical Background is a way to test cosmological models that explain how the structure and evolution of the Universe. Credit: 2MASS/Caltech

Their results also showed that earlier measurements conducted by Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 were excessively bright (owing to interference). However, their results were consistent with previous measurements that were based on data obtained by the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions. Back in the 1970s, these probes managed to gather data on the Universe while swinging past Jupiter and exploring the outer Solar System.

By showing consistency with these results (and other measurements from over the years), the team demonstrated just how valuable missions like New Horizons are. It is hoped that before it wraps up in 2021, that scientists will have a chance to conduct more measurements of the COB. Considering how rare missions to the outer Solar System are, it is understandable why Zemcov and his colleagues want to take full advantage of this opportunity.

“NASA sends missions to the outer Solar System once a decade or so,” he said. “What they send is typically going to planets and the instruments onboard are designed to look at them, not to do astrophysics. Measurements could be designed to optimize this technique while LORRI is still functioning… With a carefully designed survey, we should be able to produce a definitive measurement of the diffuse light in the local universe and a tight constraint on the light from galaxies in the optical wavebands.”

Artist’s concept of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt object, part of an extended mission after the spacecraft’s July 2015 Pluto flyby. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

In other mission-related news, New Horizons probe will be taking a nap as it approaches its next destination – 2014 MU69. On Friday, April 7th, at 15:32 EDT, mission controllers at the John Hopkins University APL verified that the probe had entered hibernation. It will remain in this state for the next 157 days, waking up again on September 11th, 2017, as it makes its approach to 2014 MU69.

Originally, the New Horizons mission was scheduled to end after its historic encounter with Pluto. However, the mission was extended shortly thereafter to 2021 so the probe would also be able to make some more historic encounters. If, in the meantime, this probe can also shed new light on the mysteries of the Universe, it will surely be remembered as one of the most groundbreaking missions of all time.

Further Reading: RIT, Nature Communications

What is the Color of Pluto?

Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet based on our growing understanding of its nature. Will Schlaufman's new study help us more accurately classify gas giants and brown dwarfs? NASA's New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

When Pluto was first discovered by Clybe Tombaugh in 1930, astronomers believed that they had found the ninth and outermost planet of the Solar System. In the decades that followed, what little we were able to learn about this distant world was the product of surveys conducted using Earth-based telescopes. Throughout this period, astronomers believed that Pluto was a dirty brown color.

In recent years, thanks to improved observations and the New Horizons mission, we have finally managed to obtain a clear picture of what Pluto looks like. In addition to information about its surface features, composition and tenuous atmosphere, much has been learned about Pluto’s appearance. Because of this, we now know that the one-time “ninth planet” of the Solar System is rich and varied in color.


With a mean density of 1.87 g/cm3, Pluto’s composition is differentiated between an icy mantle and a rocky core. The surface is composed of more than 98% nitrogen ice, with traces of methane and carbon monoxide. Scientists also suspect that Pluto’s internal structure is differentiated, with the rocky material having settled into a dense core surrounded by a mantle of water ice.

The Theoretical structure of Pluto, consisting of 1. Frozen nitrogen 2. Water ice 3. Rock. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

The diameter of the core is believed to be approximately 1700 km, which accounts for 70% of Pluto’s total diameter. Thanks to the decay of radioactive elements, it is possible that Pluto contains a subsurface ocean layer that is 100 to 180 km thick at the core–mantle boundary.

Pluto has a thin atmosphere consisting of nitrogen (N2), methane (CH4), and carbon monoxide (CO), which are in equilibrium with their ices on Pluto’s surface. However, the planet is so cold that during part of its orbit, the atmosphere congeals and falls to the surface. The average surface temperature is 44 K (-229 °C), ranging from 33 K (-240 °C) at aphelion to 55 K (-218 °C) at perihelion.


Pluto’s surface is very varied, with large differences in both brightness and color. Pluto’s surface also shows signs of heavy cratering, with ones on the dayside measuring 260 km (162 mi) in diameter. Tectonic features including scarps and troughs has also been seen in some areas, some as long as 600 km (370 miles).

Mountains have also been seen that are between 2 to 3 kilometers (6500 – 9800 ft) in elevation above their surroundings. Like much of the surface, these features are believed to be composed primarily of frozen nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane, which are believed to sit atop a “bedrock” of frozen water ice.

Color mosaic map of Pluto’s surface, created from the New Horizons many photographs. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The surface also has many dark, reddish patches due to the presence of tholins, which are created by charged particles from the Sun interacting with mixtures of methane and nitrogen. Pluto’s visual apparent magnitude averages 15.1, brightening to 13.65 at perihelion. In other words, the planet has a range of colors, including pale sections of off-white and light blue, to streaks of yellow and subtle orange, to large patches of deep red.

Overall, its appearance could be described as “ruddy”, given that the combination can lend it a somewhat brown and earthy appearance from a distance. In fact, prior to the New Horizon‘s mission, which provided the first high-resolution, close-up images of the planet, this is precisely what astronomers believed Pluto looked like.

Major Surface Features:

Several different regions (“regio”) have been characterized based on the notable features they possess. Perhaps the best known is the large, pale area nicknamed the “Heart” – aka. Tombaugh Regio (named after Pluto’s founder). This large bright area is located on the side of Pluto that lies opposite the side that faces Charon, and is named because of its distinctive shape.

Tombaugh Regio is about 1,590 km (990 mi) across and contains 3,400 m (11,000 ft) mountains made of water ice along its southwestern edge. The lack of craters suggests that its surface is relatively young (about 100 million years old) and hints at Pluto being geologically active. The Heart can be subdivided into two lobes, which are distinct geological features that are both bright in appearance.

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. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/SwRI/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The western lobe, Sputnik Planitia, is vast plain of nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices measuring 1000 km in width. It is divided into polygonal sections that are believed to be convection cells, which carry blocks of water ice and sublimation pits along towards the edge of the plain. This region is especially young (less than 10 million years old), which is indicated by its lack of cratering.

Then there is the large, dark area on the trailing hemisphere known as Cthulhu Regio (aka.the “Whale”). Named for its distinctive shape, this elongated, dark region along the equator is the largest dark feature on Pluto – measuring 2,990 km (1,860 mi) in length. The dark color is believed to be the result methane and nitrogen in the atmosphere interacting with ultraviolet light and cosmic rays, creating the dark particles (“tholins”) common to Pluto.

And then there are the “Brass Knuckles”, a series of equatorial dark areas on the leading hemisphere. These features average around 480 km (300 mi) in diameter, and are located along the equator between the Heart and the tail of the Whale.

New Horizons Mission:

The NH mission launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on January 19th, 2006. After swinging by Jupiter for a gravity boost and to conduct some scientific studies in February of 2007, it reached Pluto in the summer of 2015. Once there, it conducted a six month-long reconnaissance flyby of Pluto and its system of moons, culminating with a closest approach that occurred on July 14th, 2015.

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

The first images of Pluto acquired by NH were taken on September 21st to 24th, 2006, during a test of the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). At the time, the probe was still at a distance of approximately 4.2 billion km (2.6 billion mi) or 28 AU, and the photos were released on November 28th, 2006. Between July 1st and 3rd, the first images were taken that were able to resolved Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, as separate objects.

Between July 19th–24th, 2014, the probe snapped 12 images of Charon revolving around Pluto, covering almost one full rotation at distances ranging from 429 to 422 million kilometers (267,000,000 to 262,000,000 mi). After a brief hibernation during its final approach, New Horizons “woke up” on Dec. 7th, 2014. Distant-encounter operations began on January 4th, 2015, and NH began taking images of Pluto as it grew closer.

During its closest approach (July 14th, 2015, at at 11:50 UTC), the NH probe passed within 12,500 km (7,800 mi) of Pluto. About 3 days before making its closest approach, long-range imaging of Pluto and Charon took place that were 40 km (25 mi) in resolution, which allowed for all sides of both bodies to be mapped out.

Close-range imaging also took place twice a day during this time to search for any indication of surface changes. The NH probe also analyzed Pluto’s atmosphere using its suite of scientific instruments. This included it’s ultraviolet imaging spectrometer (aka. Alice) and the Radio Science EXperiment (REX), which analyzed the composition and structure of Pluto’s atmosphere.

Haze with multiple layers in the atmosphere of Pluto. Part of the plain Sputnik Planitia with nearby mountains is seen below. Photo by New Horizons, taken 15 min after the closest approach to Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It’s Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) and Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) examined the interaction of Pluto’s high atmosphere with solar wind. Pluto’s diameter was also resolved by measuring the disappearance and reappearance of the radio occultation signal as the probe flew by behind Pluto. And the gravitational tug on the probe were used to determine Pluto’s mass and mass distribution.

All of this information has helped astronomers to make the first detailed maps of Pluto, and led to numerous discoveries about Pluto’s structure, composition, and the kinds of forces that actively shape its surface. The mission also led to the first true images of what Pluto looks like up close, revealing its true colors, it’s famous “Heart” region, and the many other now-famous features.

We have written many interesting articles about the colors of astronomical bodies here at Universe Today. Here’s What Color is the Sun?, What are the Colors of the Planets?, What Color is Mercury?, What Color is Venus?, What Color is the Moon?, Why is Mars Red?, What Color is Jupiter?, What Color is Saturn?, What Color is Uranus?, and What Color is Neptune?


Get Ready For The >100 Planet Solar System

Pluto’s status as a non-planet may be coming to an end. Professor Mike Brown of Caltech ended Pluto’s planetary status in 2006. But now, Kirby Runyon, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, thinks it’s time to cancel that demotion and restore it as our Solar System’s ninth planet.

Pluto’s rebirth as a planet is not just all about Pluto, though. A newer, more accurate definition of what is and what is not a planet is needed. And if Runyon and the other people on the team he leads are successful, our Solar System would have more than 100 planets, including many bodies we currently call moons. (Sorry elementary school students.)

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. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) changed the definition of what a planet is. Pluto’s demotion stemmed from discoveries in the 1990’s showing that it is actually a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). It was just the first KBO that we discovered. When Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and included as the ninth planet in our Solar System, we didn’t know much about the Kuiper Belt.

But in 2005, the dwarf planet Eris was discovered. It was like Pluto, but 27% more massive. This begged the question, Why Pluto and not Eris? The IAU struck a committee to look into how planets should be defined.

In 2006, the IAU had a decision to make. Either expand the definition of what is and what is not a planet to include Eris and other bodies like Ceres, or shrink the definition to omit Pluto. Pluto was demoted, and that’s the way it’s been for a decade. Just enough time to re-write text books.

But a lot has happened since then. The change to the definition of planet was hotly debated, and for some, the change should never have happened. Since the New Horizons mission arrived at Pluto, that debate has been re-opened.

A group of scientists led by Runyon has written a paper to be presented at the upcoming Lunar and Planetary Science Conference on March 20th to 24th.

“A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion…” – part of the new planetary definition proposed by Runyon and his team.

The group behind the drive to re-instate Pluto have a broader goal in mind. If the issue of whether Pluto is or is not a planet sounds a little pedantic, it’s not. As Runyon’s group says on their poster to be displayed at the upcoming conference, “Nomenclature is important as it affects how we compare, think, and communicate about objects in nature.”

Runyon’s team proposes a new definition of what is a planet, focused on the geophysics of the object: “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has enough gravitation to be round due to hydrostatic equilibrium regardless of its orbital parameters.”

The poster highlights some key points around their new planetary definition:

  • Emphasizes intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic properties.
  • Can be paraphrased for younger students: “Round objects in space that are smaller than stars.”
  • The geophysical definition is already in use, taught, and included in planetological glossaries.
  • There’s no need to memorize all 110 planets. Teach the Solar Systems zones and why different planet types formed at different distances from the Sun.

Their proposal makes a lot of sense, but there will be people opposed to it. 110 planets is quite a change, and the new definition is a real mouthful.

“They want Pluto to be a planet because they want to be flying to a planet.” – Prof. Mike Brown, from a BBC interview, July 2015.

Mike Brown, the scientist behind Pluto’s demotion, saw this all coming when New Horizons reached the Pluto system in the Summer of 2015. In an interview with the BBC, he said “The people you hear most talking about reinstatement are those involved in the (New Horizons) mission. It is emotionally difficult for them.”

Saying that the team behind New Horizons find Pluto’s status emotionally difficult seems pretty in-scientific. In fact, their proposed new definition seems very scientific.

This image from New Horizons shows the true nature of Pluto. What for a long time was just a blurry, round, blob in space, was revealed as a geologically active planet with a seasonal atmosphere. Image: NASA/JPL/New Horizons

There may be an answer to all of this. The term “classical planets” might be of some use. That term could include our 9 familiar planets, the knowledge of which guided much of our understanding and exploration of the Solar System. But it’s a fact of science that as our understanding of something grows more detailed, our language around it has to evolve to accommodate. Look at the term planetary nebula—still in use long after we know they have nothing to do with planets—and how much confusion it causes.

“It is official without IAU approval, partly via usage.” – Runyon and team, on their new definition.

In the end, it may not matter whether the IAU is convinced by Runyon’s proposed new definition. As their poster states, “As a geophysical definition, this does not fall under the domain of the IAU, and is an alternate and parallel definition that can be used by different scientists. It is “official” without IAU approval, partly via usage.”

It may seem pointless to flip-flop back and forth about Pluto’s status as a planet. But there are sound reasons for updating definitions based on our growing knowledge. We’ll have to wait and see if the IAU agrees with that, and whether or not they adopt this new definition, and the >100 planet Solar System.

You can view Runyon and team’s poster here.
You can view Emily Lakdawalla’s image of round objects in our Solar System here.
You can read the IAU’s definition of a planet here.