New Reasons why Pluto Should be Considered a Planet After All

In 2006, during their 26th General Assembly, the International Astronomic Union (IAU) passed a resolution to adopt a formal definition for the term “planet”. According to this definition, bodies that orbit the Sun, are spherical, do not orbit other bodies, and have cleared their orbits were designated planets. Pluto, and other such bodies that did not meet all of these requirements, would thereafter be designated as “dwarf planets”.

However, according to a new study led by Philip T. Metzger – a planetary scientists from the Florida Space Institute (at the University of Central Florida) – the IAU’s standard for classifying planets is not supported by the research literature on Pluto, and is therefore invalid. For those people who have maintained that “Pluto is still planet” for the past twelve years, this is certainly good news!

Continue reading “New Reasons why Pluto Should be Considered a Planet After All”

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”

New Research Raises Hopes for Finding Life on Mars, Pluto and Icy Moons

Since the 1970s, when the Voyager probes captured images of Europa’s icy surface, scientists have suspected that life could exist in interior oceans of moons in the outer Solar System. Since then, other evidence has emerged that has bolstered this theory, ranging from icy plumes on Europa and Enceladus, interior models of hydrothermal activity, and even the groundbreaking discovery of complex organic molecules in Enceladus’ plumes.

However, in some locations in the outer Solar System, conditions are very cold and water is only able to exist in liquid form because of the presence of toxic antifreeze chemicals. However, according to a new study by an international team of researchers, it is possible that bacteria could survive in these briny environments. This is good news for those hoping to find evidence of life in extreme environments of the Solar System.

The study which details their findings, titled “Enhanced Microbial Survivability in Subzero Brines“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Astrobiology. The study was conducted by Jacob Heinz from the Center of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Technical University of Berlin (TUB), and included members from Tufts University, Imperial College London, and Washington State University.

Based on new evidence from Jupiter’s moon Europa, astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon’s global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Basically, on bodies like Ceres, Callisto, Triton, and Pluto – which are either far from the Sun or do not have interior heating mechanisms – interior oceans are believed to exist because of the presence of certain chemicals and salts (such as ammonia). These “antifreeze” compounds ensure that their oceans have lower freezing points, but create an environment that would be too cold and toxic to life as we know it.

For the sake of their study, the team sought to determine if microbes could indeed survive in these environments by conducting tests with Planococcus halocryophilus, a bacteria found in the Arctic permafrost. They then subjected this bacteria to solutions of sodium, magnesium and calcium chloride as well as perchlorate, a chemical compound that was found by the Phoenix lander on Mars.

They then subjected the solutions to temperatures ranging from +25°C to -30°C through multiple freeze and thaw cycles. What they found was that the bacteria’s survival rates depended on the solution and temperatures involved. For instance, bacteria suspended in chloride-containing (saline) samples had better chances of survival compared to those in perchlorate-containing samples – though survival rates increased the more the temperatures were lowered.

For instance, the team found that bacteria in a sodium chloride (NaCl) solution died within two weeks at room temperature. But when temperatures were lowered to 4 °C (39 °F), survivability began to increase and almost all the bacteria survived by the time temperatures reached -15 °C (5 °F). Meanwhile, bacteria in the magnesium and calcium-chloride solutions had high survival rates at –30 °C (-22 °F).

Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

The results also varied for the three saline solvents depending on the temperature. Bacteria in calcium chloride (CaCl2) had significantly lower survival rates than those in sodium chloride (NaCl) and magnesium chloride (MgCl2)between 4 and 25 °C (39 and 77 °F), but lower temperatures boosted survival in all three.  The survival rates in perchlorate solution were far lower than in other solutions.

However, this was generally in solutions where perchlorate constituted 50% of the mass of the total solution (which was necessary for the water to remain liquid at lower temperatures), which would be significantly toxic. At concentrations of 10%, bacteria was still able to grow. This is semi-good news for Mars, where the soil contains less than one weight percent of perchlorate.

However, Heinz also pointed out that salt concentrations in soil are different than those in a solution. Still, this could be still be good news where Mars is concerned, since temperatures and precipitation levels there are very similar to parts of Earth – the Atacama Desert and parts of Antarctica. The fact that bacteria have can survive such environments on Earth indicates they could survive on Mars too.

In general, the research indicated that colder temperatures boost microbial survivability, but this depends on the type of microbe and the composition of the chemical solution. As Heinz told Astrobiology Magazine:

“[A]ll reactions, including those that kill cells, are slower at lower temperatures, but bacterial survivability didn’t increase much at lower temperatures in the perchlorate solution, whereas lower temperatures in calcium chloride solutions yielded a marked increase in survivability.”

This full-circle view from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows the terrain surrounding the location called “Troy,” where Spirit became embedded in soft soil during the spring of 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL

The team also found that bacteria did better in saltier solutions when it came to freezing and thawing cycles. In the end, the results indicate that survivability all comes down to a careful balance. Whereas lower concentrations of chemical salts meant that bacteria could survive and even grow, the temperatures at which water would remain in a liquid state would be reduced. It also indicated that salty solutions improve bacteria survival rates when it comes to freezing and thawing cycles.

Of course, the team emphasized that just because bacteria can subsist in certain conditions doesn’t mean they will thrive there. As Theresa Fisher, a PhD student at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and a co-author on the study, explained:

“Survival versus growth is a really important distinction, but life still manages to surprise us. Some bacteria can not only survive in low temperatures, but require them to metabolize and thrive. We should try to be unbiased in assuming what’s necessary for an organism to thrive, not just survive.”  

As such, Heinz and his colleagues are currently working on another study to determine how different concentrations of salts across different temperatures affect bacterial propagation. In the meantime, this study and other like it are able to provide some unique insight into the possibilities for extraterrestrial life by placing constraints on the kinds of conditions that they can survive and grow in.

These studies also allow help when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life, since knowing where life can exist allows us to focus our search efforts. In the coming years, missions to Europa, Enceladus, Titan and other locations in the Solar System will be looking for biosignatures that indicate the presence of life on or within these bodies. Knowing that life can survive in cold, briny environments opens up additional possibilities.

Further Reading: Astrobiology Magazine, Astrobiology

Pluto has “Sand Dunes”, but Instead of Sand, it’s Grains of Frozen Methane

In July of 2015, the New Horizons mission made history when it conducted the first flyby in history of Pluto. In the course of conducting its flyby, the probe gathered volumes of data about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere and system of moons. It also provided breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, mountain chains, and it’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.

These strange features showed people for the first time how radically different the surface of Pluto is from Earth and the other planets of the inner Solar System. But strangely, they also showcased how this distant world is also quite similar to Earth. For instance, in a new study, a team of researchers working on the images from the New Horizons mission noticed “dunes” on the surface of Pluto that resemble sand dunes here on Earth.

The study, titled “Dunes on Pluto“, was recently published in the journal Science. The study was led by Matthew Telfer, a Lecturer in Physical Geography from the University of Plymouth, with significant contributions provided by Eric J. R. Parteli and Jani Radebaugh – geoscientists from the University of Cologne, and Brigham Young University, respectively.

The fine smudges on Sputnik Planum have been identified as transverse dunes because of the way they run perpendicular to the dark “wind streaks”. Credit: NASA/JPL/New Horizons

They were joined by members from the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Lowell Observatory, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), and multiple universities.

On Earth, dunes are formed by wind-blown sand that create repeated ridges in the desert or along beaches. Similar patterns have been observed along river beds and alluvial plains, where water deposits sediment over time. In all cases, dune-like formations are the result of solid particles being transported by a moving medium (i.e. air or water). Beyond Earth, such patterns have been observed on Mars, Titan, and even on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

However, when consulting images from New Horizons probe, Telfer and his colleagues noted similar formations in the Sputnik Planitia region on Pluto. This region, which constitutes the western lobe of the heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio, is essentially a massive ice-covered basin. Already, researchers have noted that the surface appears to consist of irregular polygons bordered by troughs, which appear to be indications of convection cells.

As Dr. Telfer told Universe Today via email:

“We first saw some features looked kind of dune-like within the first few days, but as time passed, and new images came in, most of these seemed less and less convincing. But one area became more and more convincing with every pass. This is what we’re reporting on.”

Another interesting feature is the dark streams that are a few kilometers long and are all aligned in the same direction. But equally interesting were the features that Telfer and his team noticed, which looked like dunes that ran perpendicular to the wind streaks. This indicated that they were transverse dunes, the kinds that pile up due to prolonged wind activity in the desert.

New Horizon images showing the patterns on Pluto’s surface that were hypothesized to be dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

To determine if this was a plausible hypothesis, the researchers constructed models that took into account what kind of particles would make up these dunes. They concluded that either methane or nitrogen ice would be able to form sand-sized grains that could be transported by typical winds. They then modeled the physics of Pluto’s winds, which would be strongest coming down the slopes of the mountains that border Sputnik Planum.

However, they also determined that Pluto’s winds would not be strong enough to push the particles around on their own. This is where sublimation played a key role, where surface ice goes from a solid phase directly to a gas when warmed by sunlight. This sublimation would provide the upward force necessary to lift the particles, at which point they would be caught by Pluto’s winds and blown around.

As Dr. Telfer explained, this conclusion was made possible thanks to the immense amount of support his team got, much of which came from the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Science Theme Team:

“Once we’d done the spatial analysis that made us really sure that these features made sense as dunes, we had the great opportunity to hook up with Eric Parteli at Cologne; he showed us through his modelling that the dunes should form, as long as the grains become airborne in the first place. The NASA New Horizons team really helped here, as they pointed out that mixed nitrogen/methane ices would preferentially fling methane ice grains upwards as the ices sublimated.”

Comparison of dune features on Pluto with those on Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In addition to showing that Pluto, one of the most distant objects in the Solar System, has a few things in common with Earth, this study has also shown just how active Pluto’s surface is. “It shows us that not only is Pluto’s surface affecting its atmosphere, the converse is also true,” said Dr. Telfer. “We have a really dynamic world’s surface, so far out in the solar system.

On top of that, understanding how dunes can form under Pluto’s conditions will help scientists to interpret similar features found elsewhere in the Solar System. For example, NASA is planning on sending a mission to Titan in the coming decade to study its many interesting surface features, which include its dune formations. And many more missions are being sent to explore the Red Planet before a crewed mission takes place in the 2030s.

Knowing how such formations were created are key to understanding the dynamics of the planet, which will help answer some of the deeper questions about what is taking place on the surface.

Further Reading: ArsTechnica, Science

Pluto is What You Get When a Billion Comets Smash Together

Pluto has been the focus of a lot of attention for more than a decade now. This began shortly after the discovery of Eris in the Kuiper Belt, one of many Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) that led to the “Great Planetary Debate” and the 2006 IAU Resolution. Interest in Pluto also increased considerably thanks to the New Horizons mission, which conducted the first flyby of this “dwarf planet” in July of 2015.

The data this mission provided on Pluto is still proving to be a treasure trove for astronomers, allowing for new discoveries about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere, and even formation. For instance, a new study produced by researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (and supported by NASA Rosetta funding) indicates that Pluto may have formed from a billion comets crashing together.

The study, titled “Primordial N2 provides a cosmochemical explanation for the existence of Sputnik Planitia, Pluto“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Icarus. The study was authored by Dr. Christopher R. Glein – a researcher with the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division – and Dr. J. Hunter Waite Jr, an SwRI program director.

The first Kuiper Belt is home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL

The origin of Pluto is something that astronomers have puzzled over for some time. An early hypothesis was that it was an escaped moon of Neptune that had been knocked out of orbit by Neptune’s current largest moon, Triton. However, this theory was disproven after dynamical studies showed that Pluto never approaches Neptune in its orbit. With the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, the true of origin of Pluto began to become clear.

Essentially, while Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper Belt, it is similar in orbit and composition to the icy objects that surround it. On occasion, some of these objects are kicked out of the Kuiper Belt and become long-period comets in the Inner Solar System. To determine if Pluto formed from billions of KBOs, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr. examined data from the New Horizons mission on the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia.

This large glacier forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface (aka. Pluto’s “Heart”). They then compared this to data obtained by the NASA/ESA Rosetta mission, which studied the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) between 2014 and 2016. As Dr. Glein explained:

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation. We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

New Horizon’s July 2015 flyby of Pluto captured this iconic image of the heart-shaped region called Tombaugh Regio. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This research also comes up against a competing theory, known as the “solar model”. In this scenario, Pluto formed from the very cold ices that were part of the protoplanetary disk, and would therefore have a chemical composition that more closely matches that of the Sun. In order to determine which was more likely, scientists needed to understand not only how much nitrogen is present at Pluto now (in its atmosphere and glaciers), but how much could have leaked out into space over the course of eons.

They then needed to come up with an explanation for the current proportion of carbon monoxide to nitrogen. Ultimately, the low abundance of carbon monoxide at Pluto could only be explained by burial in surface ices or destruction from liquid water. In the end, Dr. Glein and Dr. Waite Jr.’s research suggests that Pluto’s initial chemical makeup, which was created by comets, was modified by liquid water, possibly in the form of a subsurface ocean.

“This research builds upon the fantastic successes of the New Horizons and Rosetta missions to expand our understanding of the origin and evolution of Pluto,” said Dr. Glein. “Using chemistry as a detective’s tool, we are able to trace certain features we see on Pluto today to formation processes from long ago. This leads to a new appreciation of the richness of Pluto’s ‘life story,’ which we are only starting to grasp.”

While the research certainly offers an interesting explanation for how Pluto formed, the solar model still satisfies some criteria. In the end, more research will be needed before scientists can conclude how Pluto formed. And if data from the New Horizons or Rosetta missions should prove insufficient, perhaps another to New Frontiers mission to Pluto will solve the mystery!

Further Reading: SwRI, Icarus

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

New Horizons Just Took a Record Breaking Image. No Camera Has Ever Taken a Picture From This Far From Earth

In July of 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with Pluto. In the course of conducting its flyby, the probe gathered volumes of data about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere and system of moons. It also provided breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, mountain chains, and it’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.

Since that time, New Horizons has carried on to the Kuiper Belt for the sake of conducting more historic encounters. In preparation for these, the probe also established new records when it used its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take a series of long-distance pictures. These images, which have since been released to the public, have set the new record for the most distant images ever taken.

At present, the New Horizons probe is at a distance of 6.12 billion km (3.79 billion mi) from Earth. This means that images taken at this point are at a distance of 40.9 Astronomical Units (AUs), or the equivalent of about 41 times the distance between Earth and the Sun. This it slightly farther than the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, which was snapped by the Voyager 1 mission when it was at a distance of 6.06 billion km (3.75 billion mi; 40.5 AU) from Earth.

Image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, taken Dec. 5, 2017, which temporarily broke the 27-year record set by Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This historic picture was taken on February 14th, 1990 (Valentine’s Day) at the behest of famed astronomer Carl Sagan. At the time, Sagan was a member of the Voyager imaging team, and he recommended that Voyager 1 take the opportunity to look back at Earth one more time before making its way to the very edge of the Solar System. For more than 27 years, this long-distance record remained unchallenged.

However, in December of 2017, the New Horizons team began conducting a routine calibration test of the LORRI instrument. This consisted of snapping pictures of the “Wishing Well” cluster (aka. the “Football Cluster” or NGC 3532), an open galactic star cluster that is located about 1321 light years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation of Carina.

This image (shown above) was rather significant, given that this star cluster was the first target ever observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (on May 20th, 1990). While this image broke the long-distance record established by Voyager 1, the probe then turned its LORRI instrument towards objects in its flight path. As part of the probes mission to rendezvous with a KBO, the team was searching for forward-scattering rings or dust.

As a result, just two hours after it had taken the record-breaking image of the “Wishing Well” star cluster, the probe snapped pictures of the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) known as 2012 HZ84 and 2012 HE85 (seen below, left and right). These images once again broke the record for being the most distant images taken from Earth (again), but also set a new record for the closest-ever images ever taken of KBOs.

False-color images of KBOs 2012 HZ84 (left) and 2012 HE85, taken by LORRI, are the farthest from Earth ever captured by a spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

As Dr. Alan Stern, the Principle Investigator of the New Horizons mission at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), explained in a NASA press release:

“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched. And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

As one of only five spacecraft to travel beyond the Outer Planets, New Horizons has set a number of other distance records as well. These include the most-distant course-correction maneuver, which took place on Dec. 9th, 2017, and guided the spacecraft towards its planned flyby with the KBO 2014 MU69. This event, which will happen on Jan. 1st, 2019, will be the farthest planetary encounter in history.

In the course of its extended mission in the Kuiper Belt, the New Horizons team seeks to observe at least two-dozen other KBOs, dwarf planets and “Centaurs” – i.e. former KBOs that have unstable orbits that cause them to cross the orbit of the gas giants. At present, the New Horizons spacecraft is in hibernation and will be brought back online on June 4th, – when it will begin a series of checks to make sure it is ready for its planned encounter with MU69.

The spacecraft is also conducting nearly continuous measurements of the Kuiper Belt itself to learn more about its plasma, dust and neutral-gas environment. These efforts could reveal much about the formation and evolution of the Solar System, and are setting records that are not likely to be broken for many more decades!

Further Reading: NASA

New Study Provides Explanation for Pluto’s Giant Blades of Ice

When it made its historic flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft gave scientists and the general public the first clear picture of what this distant dwarf planet looks like. In addition to providing breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, and mountain chains, one of the more interesting features it detected was Pluto’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.

According to data obtained by New Horizons, these features are made almost entirely out of methane ice and resemble giant blades. At the time of their discovery, what caused these features remained unknown. But according to new research by members of the New Horizons team, it is possible that these features are the result of a specific kind of erosion that is related to Pluto’s complex climate and geological history.

Ever since the New Horizons probe provided a detailed look at Pluto’s geological features, the existence of these jagged ridges has been a source of mystery. They are located at the highest altitudes on Pluto’s surface near it’s equator, and can reach several hundred feet in altitude. In that respect, they are similar to penitentes, a type of structure found in high-altitude snowfields along Earth’s equator.

Penitentes, on the southern end of the Chajnantor plain in Chile. Credits: Wikimedia Commons/ESO

These structures are formed through sublimation, where atmospheric water vapor freezes to form standing, blade-like ice structures. The process is based on sublimation, where rapid changes in temperature cause water to transition from a vapor to a solid (and back again) without changing into a liquid state in between. With this in mind, the research team considered various mechanisms for the formation of these ridges on Pluto.

What they determined was that Pluto’s bladed terrain was the result of atmospheric methane freezing at extreme altitudes on Pluto, which then led to ice structures similar to the ones found on Earth.The team was led by Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who was also a New Horizons’ team member. As he explained in a NASA press statement:

“When we realized that bladed terrain consists of tall deposits of methane ice, we asked ourselves why it forms all of these ridges, as opposed to just being big blobs of ice on the ground. It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”

But unlike on Earth, the erosion of these features are related to changes that take place over the course of eons. This should come as no surprise seeing as how Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years (or 90,560 Earth days), meaning it takes this long to complete a single orbit around the Sun. In addition, the eccentric nature of it orbit means that its distance from the Sun ranges considerably, from 29.658 AU at perihelion to 49.305 AU at aphelion.

Maps based on New Horizons’ data on the topography (top) and composition (bottom) of Pluto’s surface. Both indicate the section of Pluto where the bladed terrain was observed. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/LPI

When the planet is farthest from the Sun, methane freezes out of the atmosphere at high altitudes. And as it gets closer to the Sun, these ice features melt and turn directly into atmospheric vapor again. As a result of this discovery, we now know that the surface and air of Pluto are apparently far more dynamic than previously thought. Much in the same way that Earth has a water cycle, Pluto may have a methane cycle.

This discovery could also allow scientists to map out locations of Pluto which were not photographed in high-detail. When the New Horizons mission conducted its flyby, it took high-resolution pictures of only one side of Pluto – designated as the “encounter hemisphere”. However, it was only able to observe the other side at lower resolution, which prevented it from being mapped in detail.

But based on this new study, NASA researchers and their collaborators have been able to conclude that these sharp ridges may be a widespread feature on Pluto’s “far side”. The study is also significant in that it advances our understanding of Pluto’s global geography and topography, both past and present. This is due to the fact that it demonstrated a link between atmospheric methane and high-altitude features. As such, researchers can now infer elevations on Pluto by looking for concentrations of methane in its atmosphere.

Not long ago, Pluto was considered one of the least-understood bodies in our Solar System, thanks to its immense distance from the Sun. However, thanks to ongoing studies made possible by the data collected by the New Horizons mission, scientists are becoming increasingly familiar with what its surface looks like, not to mention the types of geological and climatological forces that have shaped it over time.

And be sure to enjoy this video that details the discovery of Pluto’s bladed terrain, courtesy of NASA’s Ames Research Center:

Further Reading: NASA

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 AstronomyCast.com, or the AstronomyCast YouTube page.

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