Pluto Team Updates Science From the Solar System’s Edge

Illustration: Arrokoth and New Horizons probe
An artist's conception shows NASA's New Horizons probe and a Kuiper Belt object called Arrokoth. (Credit: JHUAPL / SwRI)

Nearly eight years after its historic Pluto flyby, NASA’s New Horizons probe is getting ready for another round of observations made from the icy edge of the solar system — and this time, its field of view will range from Uranus and Neptune to the cosmic background far beyond our galaxy.

Scientists on the New Horizons team shared their latest discoveries, and provided a preview of what’s ahead, during this week’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas.

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Freezing Ocean Might Not Be Responsible for Cryovolcanic Flows on Pluto’s Moon, Charon

Color-enhanced image of Pluto's largest moon, Charon, taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

In a recent study scheduled to be published in the journal Icarus in March 2023, a team of researchers led by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) modeled a potential correlation between an ancient freezing ocean with cryovolcanic flows and surface canyons on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. Their hypothesis was that when Charon’s interior ocean froze long ago, the significant stress put on the icy outer shell from the addition of more ice to the bottom of the existing shell could have been responsible for the cryovolcanic flows on the surface.

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Will Pluto finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’

Color-enhanced image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2015. More thorough exploration of the outer Solar System will require efficient power systems for spacecraft. (Credit: NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) / Southwest Research Institute (SwRI))

We previously examined how Neptune’s largest moon, Triton, could answer the longstanding question: Are we alone? With its nitrogen geysers discovered by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, possible interior ocean, and lack of craters, Triton could be geologically active, which makes it an excellent celestial body for future astrobiology missions. But Triton isn’t the only place on the edge of the solar system which garners interest for finding life beyond Earth, as one of the most familiar and well-known (former) planets also exhibits evidence of recent geological activity and crater-less surface features. This is everyone’s favorite dwarf planet, Pluto, which like Triton has only been visited by one spacecraft, this one being NASA’s New Horizons, in 2015. But even with only one visitation, we discovered so much about Pluto, and what it might be hiding, as well.

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The Universe is Brighter Than we Thought

Artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA/APL/SwRI and NASA/JPL-Caltech

Over seven years ago, the New Horizons mission made history when it became the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. In the leadup to this encounter, the spacecraft provided updated data and images of many objects in the inner and outer Solar System. Once beyond the orbit of Pluto and its moons, it embarked on a new mission: to make the first encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO). This historic flyby occurred about four years ago (Dec. 31st, 2015) when New Horizons zipped past Arrokoth (aka. 2014 MU69).

Now that it is passing through the Kuiper Belt, away from the light pollution of the inner Solar System, it has another lucrative mission: measuring the brightness of the Universe. These measurements will allow astronomers to make more accurate estimates of how many galaxies there are, which is still the subject of debate. According to new measurements by New Horizons, the light coming from stars beyond the Milky Way is two to three times brighter than the light from known populations of galaxies – meaning that there are even more out there than we thought!

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Charon’s Red Cap at its North Pole? We Might Have an Answer

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, started off as a beautiful, smooth red grape until someone came along, mostly peeled it, tried to smoosh it, then just gave up and walked away, leaving the poor moon to look like the absolute travesty that it is. Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly what happened, but Charon just looks like a mess and scientists want to know why. Never mind its smooshed equator, but what’s the deal with its red cap? Where did it come from and why is it red?

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Eight Missions are Getting Extensions, Most Exciting: OSIRIS-REx is Going to Asteroid Apophis

An artist's illustration of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approaching asteroid Bennu with its sampling instrument extended. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA has granted mission extensions to eight different planetary missions, citing the continued excellent operations of the spacecraft, but more importantly, the sustained scientific productivity of these missions, “and the potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond.” Each mission will be extended for three more years.

One of the most exciting extensions gives a new mission to the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, sending it to one of the most infamous asteroids of them all, the potentially hazardous asteroid Apophis.

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Pluto’s Surface was Shaped by Ice Volcanoes

New Horizons mission scientists have determined that cryovolcanic activity most likely created unique structures on Pluto not yet seen anywhere else in the solar system. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Isaac Herrera/Kelsi Singer

For all of Earth’s geological diversity and its long history, the planet has never had ice volcanoes. But Pluto has. And that cryovolcanism has shaped some of the ice dwarf’s surface features.

The resulting structures are unique in the Solar System.

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Now We Know Why Pluto has These Strange Features on its Surface

In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” - lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

After New Horizons made its close flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, scientists were astounded at the incredible closeup views of Pluto’s surface. One of the most intriguing and mysterious features was a bright plain inside the prominent heart-shaped feature on Pluto, called “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) named after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

The region is composed of a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments that appear to be geologically young because no impact craters are part of the terrain.

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Once New Horizons was out Beyond Pluto, it Could Finally Measure the Brightness of the Milky Way

This false-color map shows several scans of the Lyman-alpha background over the sky, obtained by the Alice ultraviolet spectrograph on the New Horizons spacecraft when it was 45 AU from the Sun. The data agrees well with an underlying model of the solar component of the Lyman-alpha background to which a constant brightness from the Milky Way has been added. The background is brighter at both directions near our Sun, which is marked here by an orange dot. Credit: SwRI

The New Horizons spacecraft has been speeding away from Earth since it launched in 2006. Scientists using the Alice UV imaging spectrograph on board New Horizons, have been patiently but sporadically gathering data during those 15 years, but also waiting to get far enough away from the Sun to make a specific measurement: the brightness of the Lyman-alpha background of the Milky Way. Until now, this had never been measured accurately.

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“Ain’t like Dusting Crops!” How We’ll Actually Navigate Interstellar Space

Simulated Hyperspace Travel
We're not at Hyperspace yet, but the next gen of interstellar space craft might be traveling at a good fraction of the speed of light c. - SpaceEngine by Author

May the 4th be With You!

Blasting out of Mos Eisley Space Port, the Millennium Falcon carries our adventurers off Tatooine bringing Luke Skywalker across the threshold into space. With Imperial Star Destroyers closing, Luke bemoans Han Solo’s delay in jumping to Hyperspace. It takes time to make these calculations through the Falcon’s “Navicomputer.” Han explains that otherwise they could “fly right through a star” or “bounce too close to a supernova.” (probably the same effect of each – also are supernovas bouncy?)

Celestial calculations are needed to figure out where you’re going. In Star Wars these are done by ship computers, or later by trusty astromech droids like R2-D2. But, for the first time, simulations have been conducted of an uncrewed ship’s ability to autonavigate through interstellar space. While not at Hyperspace speeds, the simulations do account for velocities at up to half the speed of light. Created by Coryn A.L. Bailer-Jones of the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy, these simulations may be our first step to creating our own “Navicomputers” (or R2-D2s if they have a personality).

The most distant object we’ve ever sent into space, Voyager1, was launched in 1977 (same year as the release of Star Wars). It took 4 decades to leave the solar system. The next generation of interstellar craft may be far faster but also need their own way to navigate
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