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

The Orbit of Pluto. How Long is a Year on Pluto?

Discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto was once thought to be the ninth and outermost planet of the Solar System. However, due to the formal definition adopted in 2006 at the 26th General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Pluto ceased being the ninth planet of the Solar System and has become alternately known as a “Dwarf Planet”, “Plutiod”, Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) and Kuiper Belt Object (KBO).

Despite this change of designation, Pluto remains one of the most fascinating celestial bodies known to astronomers. In addition to having a very distant orbit around the Sun (and hence a very long orbital period) it also has the most eccentric orbit of any planet or minor planet in the Solar System. This makes for a rather long year on Pluto, which lasts the equivalent of 248 Earth years!

Orbital Period:

With an extreme eccentricity of 0.2488, Pluto’s distance from the Sun ranges from 4,436,820,000 km (2,756,912,133 mi) at perihelion to 7,375,930,000 km (4,583,190,418 mi) at aphelion. Meanwhile, it’s average distance (semi-major axis) from the Sun is 5,906,380,000 km (3,670,054,382 mi). Another way to look at it would be to say that it orbits the Sun at an average distance of 39.48 AU, ranging from 29.658 to 49.305 AU.

New Horizons trajectory and the orbits of Pluto and 2014 MU69.

At its closest, Pluto actually crosses Neptune’s orbit and gets closer to the Sun. This orbital pattern takes place once every 500 years, after which the two objects then return to their initial positions and the cycle repeats. Their orbits also place them in a 2:3 mean-motion resonance, which means that for every two orbits Pluto makes around the Sun, Neptune makes three.

The 2:3 resonance between the two bodies is highly stable, and is preserved over millions of years. The last time this cycle took place was between 1979 to 1999, when Neptune was farther from the Sun than Pluto. Pluto reached perihelion in this cycle – i.e. its closest point to the Sun – on September 5th, 1989. Since 1999, Pluto returned to a position beyond that of Neptune, where it will remain for the following 228 years – i.e. until the year 2227.

Sidereal and Solar Day:

Much like the other bodies in our Solar System, Pluto also rotates on its axis. The time it takes for it to complete a single rotation on its axis is known as a “Sidereal Day”, while the amount of time it takes for the Sun to reach the same point in the sky is known as a “Solar Day”. But due to Pluto’s very long orbital period, a sidereal day and a solar day on Pluto are about the same – 6.4 Earth days (or 6 days, 9 hours, and 36 minutes).

View from the surface of Pluto, showing its large moon Charon in the distance. Credit: New York Time

It is also worth noting that Pluto and Charon (its largest moon) are actually more akin to a binary system rather than a planet-moon system. This means that the two worlds orbit each other, and that Charon is tidally locked around Pluto. In other words, Charon takes 6 days and 9 hours to orbit around Pluto – the same amount of time it takes for a day on Pluto. This also means that Charon is always in the same place in the sky when seen from Pluto.

In short, a single day on Pluto lasts the equivalent of about six and a half Earth days. A year on Pluto, meanwhile, lasts the equivalent of 248 Earth years, or 90,560 Earth days! And for the entire year, the moon is hanging overhead and looming large in the sky. But factor in Pluto’s axial tilt, and you will come to see just how odd an average year on Pluto is.

Seasonal Change:

It has been estimated that for someone standing on the surface of Pluto, the Sun would appear about 1,000 times dimmer than it appears from Earth. So while the Sun would still be the brightest object in the sky, it would look more like a very bright star that a big yellow disk. But despite being very far from the Sun at any given time, Pluto’s eccentric orbit still results in some considerable seasonal variations.

On the whole, the surface temperature of Pluto does not change much. It’s surface temperatures are estimated to range from a low of 33 K (-240 °C; -400 °F ) to a high of 55 K (-218 °C; -360°F) – averaging at around 44 K (-229 °C; -380 °F). However, the amount of sunlight each side receives during the course of a year is vastly different.

Compared to most of the planets and their moons, the Pluto-Charon system is oriented perpendicular to its orbit. Much like Uranus, Pluto’s very high axial tilt (122 degrees) essentially means that it is orbiting on its side relative to its orbital plane. This means that at a solstice, one-quarter of Pluto’s surface experiences continuous daylight while the other experiences continuous darkness.

This is similar to what happens in the Arctic Circle, where the summer solstice is characterized by perpetual sunlight (i.e. the “Midnight Sun”) and the winter solstice by perpetual night (“Arctic Darkness”). But on Pluto, these phenomena affect nearly the entire planet, and the seasons last for close to a century.

Even if it is no longer considered a planet (though this could still change) Pluto still has some very fascinating quarks, all of which are just as worthy of study as those of the other eight planets. And the time it takes to complete a full year on Pluto, and all the seasonal changes it goes through, certainly rank among the top ten!

We have written many interesting articles about a year on other planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long is a Year on the Other Planets?, Which Planet has the Longest Day?, How Long is a Year on Mercury?, How Long is a Year on Venus?, How Long is a Year on Earth?, How Long is a Year on Mars?, How Long is a Year on Jupiter?, How Long is a Year on Saturn?, How Long is a Year on Uranus?, and How Long is a Year on Neptune?.

For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Pluto, and the New Horizon’s mission page for information on Pluto’s seasons.

Astronomy Cast also has some great episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 1: Pluto’s Planetary Identity Crisis and Episode 64: Pluto and the Icy Outer Solar System.


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.

What is a Planet?

Humanity’s understanding of what constitutes a planet has changed over time. Whereas our most notable magi and scholars once believed that the world was a flat disc (or ziggurat, or cube), they gradually learned that it was in fact spherical. And by the modern era, they came to understand that the Earth was merely one of several planets in the known Universe.

And yet, our notions of what constitutes a planet are still evolving. To put it simply, our definition of planet has historically been dependent upon our frame of reference. In addition to discovering extra-solar planets that have pushed the boundaries of what we consider to be normal, astronomers have also discovered new bodies in our own backyard that have forced us to come up with new classification schemes.

History of the Term:

To ancient philosophers and scholars, the Solar Planets represented something entirely different than what they do today. Without the aid of telescopes, the planets looked like particularly bright stars that moved relative to the background stars. The earliest records on the motions of the known planets date back to the 2nd-millennium BCE, where Babylonian astronomers laid the groundwork for western astronomy and astrology.

These include the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, which catalogued the motions of Venus. Meanwhile, the 7th-century BCE MUL.APIN tablets laid out the motions of the Sun, the Moon, and the then-known planets over the course of the year (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). The Enuma anu enlil tablets, also dated to the 7th-century BCE, were a collection of all the omens assigned to celestial phenomena and the motions of the planets.

By classical antiquity, astronomers adopted a new concept of planets as bodies that orbited the Earth. Whereas some advocated a heliocentric system – such as 3rd-century BCE astronomer Aristarchus of Samos and 1st-century BCE astronomer Seleucus of Seleucia – the geocentric view of the Universe remained the most widely-accepted one. Astronomers also began creating mathematical models to predict their movements during this time.

This culminated in the 2nd century CE with Ptolemy’s (Claudius Ptolemaeus) publication of the Almagest, which became the astronomical and astrological canon in Europe and the Middle East for over a thousand years. Within this system, the known planets and bodies (even the Sun) all revolved around the Earth. In the centuries that followed, Indian and Islamic astronomers would added to this system based on their observations of the heavens.

By the time of the Scientific Revolution (ca. 15th – 18th centuries), the definition of planet began to change again. Thanks to Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler, who proposed and advanced the heliocentric model of the Solar System, planets became defined as objects that orbited the Sun and not Earth. The invention of the telescope also led to an improved understanding of the planets, and their similarities with Earth.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, countless new objects, moons and planets were discovered. This included Ceres, Vesta, Pallas (and the Main Asteroid Belt), the planets Uranus and Neptune, and the moons of Mars and the gas giants. And then in 1930, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, which was designated as the 9th planet of the Solar System.

Throughout this period, no formal definition of planet existed. But an accepted convention existed where a planet was used to described any “large” body that orbited the Sun. This, and the convention of a nine-planet Solar System, would remain in place until the 21st century. By this time, numerous discoveries within the Solar System and beyond would lead to demands that a formal definition be adopted.

Working Group on Extrasolar Planets:

While astronomers have long held that other star systems would have their own system of planets, the first reported discovery of a planet outside the Solar System (aka. extrasolar planet or exoplanet) did not take place until 1992. At this time, two radio astronomers working out of the Arecibo Observatory (Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail) announced the discovery of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12.

The first confirmed discovery took place in 1995, when astronomers from the University of Geneva (Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz) announced the detection of 51 Pegasi. Between the mid-90s and the deployment of the Kepler space telescope in 2009, the majority of extrasolar planets were gas giants that were either comparable in size and mass to Jupiter or significantly larger (i.e. “Super-Jupiters”).

Earlier today, NASA announced that Kepler had confirmed the existence of 1,284 new exoplanets, the most announced at any given time. Credit: NASA

These new discoveries led the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to create the Working Group of Extrasolar Planets (WGESP) in 1999. The stated purpose of the WGESP was to “act as a focal point for international research on extrasolar planets.” As a result of this ongoing research, and the detection of numerous extra-solar bodies, attempts were made to clarify the nomenclature.

As of February 2003, the WGESP indicated that it had modified its position and adopted the following “working definition” of a planet:

1) Objects with true masses below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium (currently calculated to be 13 Jupiter masses for objects of solar metallicity) that orbit stars or stellar remnants are “planets” (no matter how they formed). The minimum mass/size required for an extrasolar object to be considered a planet should be the same as that used in our Solar System.

2) Substellar objects with true masses above the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium are “brown dwarfs”, no matter how they formed nor where they are located.

3) Free-floating objects in young star clusters with masses below the limiting mass for thermonuclear fusion of deuterium are not “planets”, but are “sub-brown dwarfs” (or whatever name is most appropriate).

As of January 22nd, 2017, more than 2000 exoplanet discoveries have been confirmed, with 3,565 exoplanet candidates being detected in 2,675 planetary systems (including 602 multiple planetary systems).

The number of confirmed exoplanet discoveries, by year. Credit: NASA

2006 IAU Resolution:

During the early-to-mid 2000s, numerous discoveries were made in the Kuiper Belt that also stimulated the planet debate. This began with the discovery of Sedna in 2003 by a team of astronomers (Michael Brown, Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz) working at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego. Ongoing observations confirmed that it was approx 1000 km in diameter, and large enough to undergo hydrostatic equilibrium.

This was followed by the discovery of Eris – an even larger object (over 2000 km in diameter) – in 2005, again by a team consisting of Brown, Trujillo, and Rabinowitz. This was followed by the discovery of Makemake on the same day, and Haumea a few days later. Other discoveries made during this period include Quaoar in 2002, Orcus in 2004,  and 2007 OR10 in 2007.

The discovery of a several objects beyond Pluto’s orbit that were large enough to be spherical led to efforts on behalf of the IAU to adopt a formal definition of a planet. By October 2005, a group of 19 IAU members narrowed their choices to a shortlist of three characteristics. These included:

  • A planet is any object in orbit around the Sun with a diameter greater than 2000 km. (eleven votes in favour)
  • A planet is any object in orbit around the Sun whose shape is stable due to its own gravity. (eight votes in favour)
  • A planet is any object in orbit around the Sun that is dominant in its immediate neighbourhood. (six votes in favour)

After failing to reach a consensus, the committee decided to put these three definitions to a wider vote. This took place in August of 2006 at the 26th IAU General Assembly Meeting in Prague. On August 24th, the issue was put to a final draft vote, which resulted in the adoption of a new classification scheme designed to distinguish between planets and smaller bodies. These included:

(1) A “planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

(2) A “dwarf planet” is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and  (d) is not a satellite.

(3) All other objects, except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as “Small Solar-System Bodies”.

In accordance with this resolution, the IAU designated Pluto, Eris, and Ceres into the category of “dwarf planet”, while other Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) were left undeclared at the time. This new classification scheme spawned a great deal of controversy and some outcries from the astronomical community, many of whom challenged the criteria as being vague and debatable in their applicability.

The presently-known largest trans-Neptunian objects (TNO), the discovery of which prompted the current IAU definition of planet. Credit: Larry McNish, Data: M.Brown)

For instance, many have challenged the idea of a planet clearing its neighborhood, citing the existence of near-Earth Objects (NEOs), Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids, and other instances where large planets share their orbit with other objects. However, these have been countered by the argument that these large bodies do not share their orbits with smaller objects, but dominate them and carry them along in their orbits.

Another sticking point was the issue of hydrostatic equilibrium, which is the point where a planet has sufficient mass that it will collapse under the force of its own gravity and become spherical. The point at which this takes place remains entirely unclear thought, and some astronomers therefore challenge it being included as a criterion.

In addition, some astronomers claim that these newly-adopted criteria are only useful insofar as Solar planets are concerned. But as exoplanet research has shown, planets in other star star systems can be significantly different. In particular, the discovery of numerous “Super Jupiters” and “Super Earths” has confounded conventional notions of what is considered normal for a planetary system.

In June 2008, the IAU executive committee announced the establishment of a subclass of dwarf planets in the hopes of clarifying the definitions further. Comprising the recently-discovered TNOs, they established the term “plutoids”, which would thenceforth include Pluto, Eris and any other future trans-Neptunian dwarf planets (but excluded Ceres). In time, Haumea, Makemake, and other TNOs were added to the list.

Despite these efforts and changes in nomenclature, for many, the issue remains far from resolved. What’s more, the possible existence of Planet 9 in the outer Solar System has added more weight to the discussion. And as our research into exoplanets continues – and uncrewed (and even crewed) mission are made to other star systems – we can expect the debate to enter into a whole new phase!

We have written many interesting articles about the planets here at Universe Today. Here’s How Many Planets are there in the Solar System?, What are the Planets of the Solar System, The Planets of our Solar System in Order of Size, Why Pluto is no Longer a Planet, Evidence Continues to Mount for Ninth Planet, and What are Extrasolar Planets?.

For more information, take a look at this article from Scientific American, What is a Planet?, and the video archive from the IAU.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Pluto’s planetary identity crisis.


Here’s the Highest Resolution Map of Pluto We’ll Get from New Horizons

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by conducting the first flyby of Pluto. This represented the culmination of a nine year journey, which began on January 19th, 2006 – when the spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. And before the mission is complete, NASA hopes to send the spacecraft to investigate objects in the Kuiper Belt as well.

To mark the 11th anniversary of the spacecraft’s launch, members of the New Horizons team took part in panel a discussion hosted by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) located in Laurel, Maryland. The event was broadcasted on Facebook Live, and consisted of team members speaking about the highlights of the mission and what lies ahead for the NASA spacecraft.

The live panel discussion took place on Thursday, Sept. 19th at 4 p.m. EST, and included Jim Green and Alan Stern – the director the Planetary Science Division at NASA and the principle investigator (PI) of the New Horizons mission, respectively. Also in attendance was Glen Fountain and Helene Winters, New Horizons‘ project managers; and Kelsi Singer, the New Horizons co-investigator.

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 the course of the event, the panel members responded to questions and shared stories about the mission’s greatest accomplishments. Among them were the many, many high-resolution photographs taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph and Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) cameras. In addition to providing detailing images of Pluto’s surface features, they also allowed for the creation of the very first detailed map of Pluto.

Though Pluto is not officially designated as a planet anymore – ever since the XXVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, where Pluto was designated as a “dwarf planet” – many members of the team still consider it to be the ninth planet of the Solar System. Because of this, New Horizons‘ historic flyby was of particular significance.

As Principle Investigator Alan Stern – from the Southwestern Research Institute (SwRI) – explained in an interview with Inverse, the first phase of humanity’s investigation of the Solar System is now complete. “What we did was we provided the capstone to the initial exploration of the planets,” he said. “All nine have been explored with New Horizons finishing that task.”

Other significant discoveries made by the New Horizons mission include Pluto’s famous heart-shaped terrain – aka.  Sputnik Planum. This region turned out to be a young, icy plain that contains water ice flows adrift on a “sea” of frozen nitrogen. And then there was the discovery of the large mountain and possible cryovolcano located at the tip of the plain – named Tombaugh Regio, (in honor of Pluto’s discovered, Clyde Tombaugh).

New Horizons path from the inner Solar System to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL

The mission also revealed further evidence of geological activity and cryovolcanism, the presence of hyrdocarbon clouds on Pluto, and conducted the very first measurements of how Pluto interacts with solar wind. All told, over 50 gigabits of data were collected by New Horizons during its encounter and flyby with Pluto. And the detailed map which resulted from it did a good job of capturing all this complexity and diversity. As Stern explained:

“That really blew away our expectations. We did not think that a planet the size of North America could be as complex as Mars or even Earth. It’s just tons of eye candy. This color map is the highest resolution we will see until another spacecraft goes back to Pluto.”

After making its historic flyby of Pluto, the New Horizons team requested that the mission receive an extension to 2021 so that it could explore Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). This extension was granted, and for the first part of the Kuiper Belt Extended Mission (KEM), the spacecraft will perform a close flyby of the object known as 2014 MU69.

This remote KBO – which is estimated to be between 25 – 45 km (16-28 mi) in diameter – was one of two objects identified as potential targets for research, and the one recommended by the New Horizons team. The flyby, which is expected to take place in January of 2019, will involve the spacecraft taking a series of photographs on approach, as well as some pictures of the object’s surface once it gets closer.

Before the extension ends in 2021, it will continue to send back information on the gas, dust and plasma conditions in the Kuiper Belt. Clearly, we are not finished with the New Horizons mission, and it is not finished with us!

To check out footage from the live-streamed event, head on over to the New Horizons Facebook page.

Further Reading: NASA

The Car Alan Stern Drove to Pluto

Many of the rocket and space flight enthusiasts I know are also car buffs. If you fit into that category, here’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss: a chance to own the car that New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern drove all the way to Pluto.

Well, technically, he drove his shiny red Nissan 350Z the entire time the New Horizons’ spacecraft was making a beeline for the icy dwarf planet. But Stern has now donated this car to the Lowell Observatory, the facility where Pluto was discovered. The car is being auctioned off on eBay, with proceeds going to support “Lowell’s mission of scientific research and education.” You can make your bid now, as bids are being accepted from December 15-24, and the winner will not only have the privilege of owning the car, but also enjoy a dinner with Stern.

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern and the Nissan sports car he has donated to the Lowell Observatory for a fundraiser. Credit: Lowell Observatory.
New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern and the Nissan sports car he has donated to the Lowell Observatory for a fundraiser. Credit: Lowell Observatory.

Stern bought the car in 2006, the year New Horizons launched (it has a bumper sticker that says “My other vehicle is on its way to Pluto”) and he continued driving it until earlier this year, well past the spacecraft’s flyby of Pluto in July 2015.

It is a two-door model with red exterior and carbon interior, and has just over 77,000 miles on it, which, as Stern points out, is almost 10 times fewer miles than New Horizons clocked on its first day of flight. A November 9, 2016 appraisal states the vehicle is in excellent shape and has a life expectancy of 300,000 miles.

“It was Percival Lowell’s perseverance and dedication that resulted in the discovery of Pluto and, ultimately, resulted in the flight of New Horizons to explore this distant, small planet,” Stern said in a press release from the Lowell Observatory. “New Horizons was, and is, the best aspect of my career so far, so I wanted to donate this car to Lowell Observatory as a fundraising vehicle to recognize the fact that New Horizons could not have happened without the historic and pioneering work that took place at Lowell Observatory early in the last century.”

Bumper sticker on Alan Stern's car. Credit: Lowell Observatory.
Bumper sticker on Alan Stern’s car. Credit: Lowell Observatory.

Stern was the impetus behind New Horizons, billed as the fastest spacecraft ever launched, so he calls the Nissan 350Z his “second fastest vehicle.” He still oversees the New Horizons mission, as the spacecraft continues on its journey through the Kuiper Belt. It will fly past another object, named 2014 MU69, which Stern said is an ancient KBO that formed where it orbits now.

“It’s the type of object scientists have been hoping to study for decades, and this will be the most distant world we’ve ever been able to see up close,” Stern told me during an interview for my upcoming book, “Incredible Stories From Space.” Chapter 1 tells the stories of the New Horizons mission, including many stories from Stern.

With a penchant for both creating and driving state-of-the-art vehicles, Stern revealed earlier this year that his new car is a Tesla.

Lowell director Jeff Hall said, “It’s been a real pleasure working with Alan over the past few years leading up to and past the Pluto flyby. He’s been tremendously supportive of Lowell, and his donation of his car for us to auction is a sterling example of this. We’re thrilled by this gesture, and we look forward to meeting the lucky winner.”

The Lowell Observatory was founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell and has been home to many important discoveries including the detection of the large recessional velocities (redshift) of galaxies by Vesto Slipher in 1912-1914 (a result that led to the realization the universe is expanding), and the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Today, Lowell’s 14 astronomers use ground-based telescopes around the world, telescopes in space, and NASA planetary spacecraft to conduct research in astronomy and planetary science. Lowell is a private, non-profit research institution and is located near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Find out more at this link from the Lowell Observatory, and check out the auction at eBay.

Colonizing the Outer Solar System

Colonizing The Outer Solar System

Okay, so this article is Colonizing the Outer Solar System, and is actually part 2 of our team up with Fraser Cain of Universe Today, who looked at colonizing the inner solar system. You might want jump over there now and watch that part first, if you are coming in from having seen part 1, welcome, it is great having you here.

Without further ado let us get started. There is no official demarcation between the inner and outer solar system but for today we will be beginning the outer solar system at the Asteroid Belt.

Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA
Artist concept of the asteroid belt. Credit: NASA

The Asteroid Belt is always of interest to us for colonization. We have talked about mining them before if you want the details on that but for today I’ll just remind everyone that there are very rich in metals, including precious metals like gold and platinum, and that provides all the motivation we need to colonize them. We have a lot of places to cover so we won’t repeat the details on that today.

You cannot terraform asteroids the way you could Venus or Mars so that you could walk around on them like Earth, but in every respect they have a lot going for them as a candidate. They’ve got plenty for rock and metal for construction, they have lots of the basic organic elements, and they even have some water. They also get a decent amount of sunlight, less than Mars let alone Earth, but still enough for use as a power source and to grow plants.

But they don’t have much gravity, which – pardon the pun – has its ups and downs. There just isn’t much mass in the Belt. The entire thing has only a small fraction of the mass of our moon, and over half of that is in the four biggest asteroids, essentially dwarf planets in their own right. The remainder is scattered over millions of asteroids. Even the biggest, Ceres, is only about 1% of 1% of Earth’s mass, has a surface gravity of 3% Earth-normal, and an escape velocity low enough most model rockets could get into orbit. And again, it is the biggest, most you could get away from by jumping hard and if you dropped an object on one it might take a few minutes to land.

Don't blink... an artist's conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.
Don’t blink… an artist’s conception of an asteroid blocking out a distant star. Image credit: NASA.

You can still terraform one though, by definition too. The gentleman who coined the term, science fiction author Jack Williamson, who also coined the term genetic engineering, used it for a smaller asteroid just a few kilometers across, so any definition of terraforming has to include tiny asteroids too.

Of course in that story it’s like a small planet because they had artificial gravity, we don’t, if we want to fake gravity without having mass we need to spin stuff around. So if we want to terraform an asteroid we need to hollow it out and fill it with air and spin it around.

Of course you do not actually hollow out the asteroid and spin it, asteroids are loose balls of gravel and most would fly apart given any noticeable spin. Instead you would hollow it out and set a cylinder spinning inside it. Sort of like how a good thermos has an outside container and inside one with a layer of vacuum in between, we would spin the inner cylinder.

You wouldn’t have to work hard to hollow out an asteroid either, most aren’t big enough to have sufficient gravity and pressure to crush an empty beer can even at their center. So you can pull matter out from them very easily and shore up the sides with very thin metal walls or even ice. Or just have your cylinder set inside a second non-spinning outer skin or superstructure, like your washer or dryer.

You can then conduct your mining from the inside, shielded from space. You could ever pressurize that hollowed out area if your spinning living area was inside its own superstructure. No gravity, but warmth and air, and you could get away with just a little spin without tearing it apart, maybe enough for plants to grow to normally.

It should be noted that you can potentially colonize even the gas giants themselves, even though our focus today is mostly on their moons. That requires a lot more effort and technology then the sorts of colonies we are discussing today, Fraser and I decided to keep things near-future and fairly low tech, though he actually did an article on colonizing Jupiter itself last year that was my main source material back before got to talking and decided to do a video together.

Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach
Jupiter with Io and Ganymede taken by amateur astronomer Damian Peach. Credit: NASA / Damian Peach

Hydrogen is plentiful on Jupiter itself and floating refineries or ships that fly down to scoop it up might be quite useful, but again today we are more interested in its moons. The biggest problem with colonizing the moons of Jupiter is all the radiation the planet gives off.

Europa is best known as a place where the surface is covered with ice but beneath it is thought to be a vast subsurface ocean. It is the sixth largest moon coming right behind our own at number five and is one of the original four moons Galileo discovered back in 1610, almost two centuries before we even discovered Uranus, so it has always been a source of interest. However as we have discovered more planets and moons we have come to believe quite a few of them might also have subsurface oceans too.

Now what is neat about them is that water, liquid water, always leaves the door open to the possibility of life already existing there. We still know so little about how life originally evolved and what conditions permit that to occur that we cannot rule out places like Europa already having their own plants and animals swimming around under that ice.

They probably do not and obviously we wouldn’t want to colonize them, beyond research bases, if they did, but if they do not they become excellent places to colonize. You could have submarine cities in such places floating around in the sea or those buried in the surface ice layer, well shielded from radiation and debris. The water also geysers up to the surface in some places so you can start off near those, you don’t have to drill down through kilometers of ice on day one.

Water, and hydrogen, are also quite uncommon in the inner solar system so having access to a place like Europa where the escape velocity is only about a fifth of our own is quite handy for export. Now as we move on to talk about moons a lot it is important to note that when I say something has a fifth of the escape velocity of Earth that doesn’t mean it is fives time easier to get off of. Energy rises with the square of velocity so if you need to go five times faster you need to spend 5-squared or 25 times more energy, and even more if that place has tons of air creating friction and drag, atmospheres are hard to claw your way up through though they make landing easier too. But even ignoring air friction you can move 25 liters of water off of Europa for every liter you could export from Earth and even it is a very high in gravity compared to most moons and comets. Plus we probably don’t want to export lots of water, or anything else, off of Earth anyway.

Artist's concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of Trojan asteroids, small bodies that dominate our solar system. Credit: NASA

We should start by noting two things. First, the Asteroid Belt is not the only place you find asteroids, Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids are nearly as numerous, and every planet, including Earth, has an equivalent to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids at its own Lagrange Points with the Sun. Though just as Jupiter dwarfs all the other planets so to does its collection of Lagrangian objects. They can quite big too, the largest 624 Hektor, is 400 km across, and has a size and shape similar to Pennsylvania.

And as these asteroids are at stable Lagrange Points, they orbit with Jupiter but always ahead and behind it, making transit to and from Jupiter much easier and making good waypoints.

Before we go out any further in the solar system we should probably address how you get the energy to stay alive. Mars is already quite cold compared to Earth, and the Asteroids and Jupiter even more so, but with thick insulation and some mirrors to bounce light in you can do fairly decently. Indeed, sunlight out by Jupiter is already down to just 4% of what Earth gets, meaning at Jovian distances it is about 50 W/m²

That might not sound like much but it is actually almost a third of what average illumination is on Earth, when you factor in atmospheric reflection, cloudy days, nighttime, and higher, colder latitudes. It is also a good deal brighter than the inside of most well-lit buildings, and is enough for decently robust photosynthesis to grow food. Especially with supplemental light from mirrors or LED growth lamps.

But once you get out to Saturn and further that becomes increasingly impractical and a serious issue, because while food growth does not show up on your electric bill it is what we use virtually all our energy for. Closer in to the sun we can use solar panels for power and we do not need any power to grow food. As we get further out we cannot use solar and we need to heat or cold habitats and supply lighting for food, so we need a lot more power even as our main source dries up.

So what are our options? Well the first is simple, build bigger mirrors. A mirror can be quite large and paper thin after all. Alternatively we can build those mirrors far away, closer to the sun, and and either focus them on the place we want illuminated or send an energy beam, microwaves perhaps or lasers, out to the destination to supply energy.

We also have the option of using fission, if we can find enough Uranium or Thorium. There is not a lot of either in the solar system, in the area of about one part per billion, but that does amount to hundreds of trillions of tons, and it should only take a few thousand tons a year to supply Earth’s entire electric grid. So we would be looking at millions of years worth of energy supply.

Of course fusion is even better, particularly since hydrogen becomes much more abundant as you get further from the Sun. We do not have fusion yet, but it is a technology we can plan around probably having inside our lifetimes, and while uranium and thorium might be counted in parts per billion, hydrogen is more plentiful than every other element combines, especially once you get far from the Sun and Inner Solar System.

So it is much better power source, an effectively unlimited one except on time scales of billions and trillion of years. Still, if we do not have it, we still have other options. Bigger mirrors, beaming energy outwards from closer to the Sun, and classic fission of Uranium and Thorium. Access to fusion is not absolutely necessary but if you have it you can unlock the outer solar system because you have your energy supply, a cheap and abundant fuel supply, and much faster and cheaper spaceships.

Of course hydrogen, plain old vanilla hydrogen with one proton, like the sun uses for fusion, is harder to fuse than deuterium and may be a lot longer developing, we also have fusion using Helium-3 which has some advantages over hydrogen, so that is worth keeping in mind as well as we proceed outward.

Since NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet's appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, the planet’s appearance has changed greatly. This view shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Okay, let’s move on to Saturn, and again our focus is on its moons more than the planet itself. The biggest of those an the most interesting for colonization is Titan.

Titan is aptly named, this titanic moon contains more mass than than all of Saturn’s sixty or so other moons and by an entire order of magnitude at that. It is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and one where the surface pressure is 45% higher than here on Earth. Even though Titan is much smaller than Earth, its atmosphere is about 20% more massive than our own. It’s almost all nitrogen too, even more than our own atmosphere, so while you would need a breather mask to supply oxygen and it is also super-cold, so you’d need a thick insulated suit, it doesn’t have to be a pressure suit like it would on Mars or almost anyplace else.

There’s no oxygen in the atmosphere, what little isn’t nitrogen is mostly methane and hydrogen, but there is plenty of oxygen in the ice on Titan which is quite abundant. So it has everything we need for life except energy and gravity. At 14% of earth normal it is probably too low for people to comfortably and safely adapt to, but we’ve already discussed ways of dealing with that. It is low enough that you could probably flap your arms and fly, if you had wing attached.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com
On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it’s own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com

It needs some source of energy though, and we discussed that. Obviously if you’ve got fusion you have all the hydrogen you need, but Titan is one of those places we would probably want to colonize early on if we could, it is something you need a lot of to terraform other places, and is also rich in a lot of the others things we want. So we often think of it as a low-tech colony since it is one we would want early on.

In an scenario like that it is very easy to imagine a lot of local transit between Titan and its smaller neighboring moons, which are more rocky and might be easier to dig fissile materials like Uranium and Thorium out of. You might have a dozen or so small outposts on neighboring moons mining fissile materials and other metals and a big central hub on Titan they delivered that too which also exported Nitrogen to other colonies in the solar system.

Moving back and forth between moons is pretty easy, especially since things landing on Titan can aerobrake quite easily, whereas Titan itself has a pretty strong gravity well and thick atmosphere to climb out of but is a good candidate for a space elevator, since it requires nothing more sophisticated than a Lunar Elevator on our own moon and has an abundant supply of the materials needed to make Zylon for instance, a material strong enough to make an elevator there and which we can mass manufacture right now.

Titan might be the largest and most useful of Saturn’s moons, but again it isn’t the only one and not all of the other are just rocks for mining. At last count it has over sixty and many of them quite large. One of those, Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is a lot like Jupiter’s Moon Europa, in that we believe it has a large and thick subsurface ocean. So just like Europa it is an interesting candidate for Colonization. So Titan might be the hub for Saturn but it wouldn’t be the only significant place to colonize.

Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)
Clouds tower into a twilight sky on Saturn. The planet’s glowing rings seem to bend at the horizon because of the dense air. (painting ©Michael Carroll)

While Saturn is best known for its amazing rings, they tend to be overlooked in colonization. Now those rings are almost all ice and in total mass about a quarter as much as Enceladus, which again is Saturn’s Sixth largest moon, which is itself not even a thousandth of the Mass of Titan.

In spite of that the rings are not a bad place to set up shop. Being mostly water, they are abundant in hydrogen for fusion fuel and have little mass individually makes them as easy to approach or leave as an asteroid. Just big icebergs in space really, and there are many moonlets in the rings that can be as large as half a kilometer across. So you can burrow down inside one for protection from radiation and impacts and possibly mine smaller ones for their ice to be brought to places where water is not abundant.

In total those rings, which are all frozen water, only mass about 2% of Earth’s oceans, and about as much as the entire Antarctic sheet. So it is a lot of fresh water that is very easy to access and move elsewhere, and ice mines in the rings of Saturn might be quite useful and make good homes. Living inside an iceball might not sound appealing but it is better than it sounds like and we will discuss that more when we reach the Kupier Belt.

Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Uranus and Neptune, the Solar System’s ice giant planets. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

But first we still have two more planets to look at, Uranus and Neptune.

Uranus, and Neptune, are sometimes known as Ice Giants instead of Gas Giants because it has a lot more water. It also has more ammonia and methane and all three get called ices in this context because they make up most of the solid matter when you get this far out in the solar system.

While Jupiter is over a thousand times the mass of Earth, Uranus weighs in at about 15 times the Earth and has only about double the escape velocity of Earth itself, the least of any of the gas giants, and it’s strange rotation, and its strange tilt contributes to it having much less wind than other giants. Additionally the gravity is just a little less than Earth’s in the atmosphere so we have the option for floating habitats again, though it would be a lot more like a submarine than a hot air balloon.

Like Venus, Uranus has very long days, at least in terms of places receiving continual sunlight, the poles get 42 years of perpetual sunlight then 42 of darkness. Sunlight being a relative term, the light is quite minimal especially inside the atmosphere. The low wind in many places makes it a good spot for gas extraction, such as Helium-3, and it’s a good planet to try to scoop gas from or even have permanent installations.

Now Uranus has a large collection of moons as well, useful and colonizable like the other moons we have looked at, but otherwise unremarkable beyond being named for characters from Shakespeare, rather than the more common mythological names. None have atmospheres though there is a possibility Oberon or Titania might have subsurface oceans.

Neptune makes for a brief entry, it is very similar to Uranus except it has the characteristically high winds of gas giants that Uranus’s skewed poles mitigate, meaning it has no advantages over Uranus and the disadvantages of high wind speeds everywhere and being even further from the Sun. It too has moons and one of them, Triton, is thought to have subsurface oceans as well. Triton also presumably has a good amount of nitrogen inside it since it often erupts geysers of nitrogen from its surface.

Neptune's largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA

Triton is one of the largest moons in the solar system, coming in seventh just after our Moon, number 5, and Europa at number 6. Meaning that were it not a moon it would probably qualify as a Dwarf Planet and it is often thought Pluto might be an escaped moon Neptune. So Triton might be one that didn’t escape, or didn’t avoid getting captured. In fact there are an awful lot of bodies in this general size range and composition wandering about in the outer regions of our solar system as we get out into the Kuiper Belt.

Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA
Pluto and its cohorts in the icy-asteroid-rich Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. Credit: NASA

The Kuiper Belt is one of those things that has a claim on the somewhat arbitrary and hazy boundary marking the edge of the Solar System. It extends from out past Neptune to beyond Pluto and contains a good deal more mass than the asteroid Belt. It is where a lot of our comets come from and while there is plenty of rocks out there they tend to be covered in ice. In other words it is like our asteroid belt only there’s more of it and the one thing the belt is not very abundant in, water and hydrogen in general, is quite abundant out there. So if you have a power source life fusion they can be easily terraformed and are just as attractive as a source of minerals as the various asteroids and moons closer in.

Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA
Discovered in 2005, Makemake, a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) has . Credit: NASA

We mentioned the idea of living inside hollowed out asteroids earlier and you can use the same trick for comets. Indeed you could shape them to be much bigger if you like, since they would be hollow and ice isn’t hard to move and shape especially in zero gravity. Same trick as before, you place a spinning cylinder inside it. Not all the objects entirely ice and indeed your average comet is more a frozen ball of mud then ice with rocky cores. We think a lot of near Earth Asteroids are just leftover comets. So they are probably pretty good homes if you have fusion, lots of fuel and raw materials for both life and construction.

This is probably your cheapest interstellar spacecraft too, in terms of effort anyway. People often talk about re-directing comets to Mars to bring it air and water, but you can just as easily re-direct it out of the solar system entirely. Comets tend to have highly eccentric orbits, so if you capture one when it is near the Sun you can accelerate it then, actually benefiting from the Oberth Effect, and drive it out of the solar system into deep space. If you have a fusion power source to live inside one then you also have an interstellar spaceship drive, so you just carve yourself a small colony inside the comet and head out into deep space.

You’ve got supplies that will last you many centuries at least, even if it were home to tens of thousand of people, and while we think of smaller asteroids and comets as tiny, that’s just in comparison to planets. These things tend to be the size of mountain so there is plenty of living space and a kilometer of dirty ice between you and space makes a great shield against even the kinds of radiation and collisions you can experience at relativistic speeds.

Artists' impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, showing both the origin and path of Halley's Comet. Image credit: NASA/JPL.
Artists’ impression of the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL

Now the Oort Cloud is much like the Kupier Belt but begins even further out and extends out probably an entire light year or more. We don’t have a firm idea of its exact dimensions or mass, but the current notion is that it has at least several Earth’s worth of mass, mostly in various icy bodies. These will be quite numerous, estimates usually assumes at least trillion icy bodies a kilometer across or bigger, and even more smaller ones. However the volume of space is so large that those kilometer wide bodies might each be a around a billion kilometers distant from neighbors, or about a light hour. So it is spread out quite thinly, and even the inner edge is about 10 light days away.

That means that from a practical standpoint there is no source of power out there, the sun is simply too diffuse for even massive collections of mirrors and solar panels to be of use. It also means light-speed messages home or to neighbors are quite delayed. So in terms of communication it is a lot more like pre-modern times in sparsely settled lands where talking with your nearest neighbors might require an hour long walk over to their farm, and any news from the big cities might take months to percolate out to you.

There’s probably uranium and thorium out there to be found, maybe a decent amount of it, so fission as a power source is not ruled out. If you have fusion instead though each of these kilometer wide icy bodies is like a giant tank of gasoline, and as with the Kupier Belt, ice makes a nice shield against impacts and radiation.

And while there might be trillions of kilometer wide chunks of ice out there, and many more smaller bodies, you would have quite a few larger ones too. There are almost certainly tons of planets in the Pluto size-range out these, and maybe even larger ones. Even after the Oort cloud you would still have a lot of these deep space rogue planets which could bridge the gap to another solar system’s Oort Cloud. So if you have fusion you have no shortage of energy, and could colonize trillions of these bodies. There probably is a decent amount of rock and metal out there too, but that could be your major import/export option shipping home ice and shipping out metals.

That’s the edge of the Solar System so that’s the end of this article. If you haven’t already read the other half, colonizing the inner Solar System, head on over now.

Weekly Space Hangout – November 18, 2016: Dr. Jason Wright and Tabby’s Star

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Dr. Jason Wright is Professor in Penn State University’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Jason studies nearby stars, their ages and activity levels, and their planetary systems (exoplanets.) Jason also does a lot of outreach and research about Tabby’s Star (the “”alien magastructure”” star.)


Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)

Their stories this week:

The tilting of Pluto

GOES-R weather satellite

More about Saturn’s hexagon

High-energy electron shenanigans around Earth

Close-ups of Ceres’ bright spot

Great Valley found on a shrinking Mercury

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

Pluto Has a Subsurface ‘Antifreeze’ Ocean

The evidence keeps growing for a large subsurface ocean at Pluto, which also provides clues how the iconic ‘heart’ of Pluto was formed.

We reported in early October that thermal models of Pluto’s interior and tectonic evidence suggest an ocean may exist beneath Pluto’s heart-shaped Sputnik Planitia. Now, new research on data from the New Horizons mission shows more indications of an ocean just below Pluto’s surface that consists of a slushy, viscous liquid, kept warm from Pluto’s interior and a hint of anti-freeze.

“As far as we can tell, there’s no tidal heating helping to keep the ocean liquid,” Francis Nimmo from UC Santa Cruz told Universe Today. He is the first author of a paper on the new findings published today in Nature. “The main heat source keeping the ocean liquid is radioactive decay in Pluto’s rocky interior, although it certainly helps if there is an ‘antifreeze’ present.”

This cutaway image of Pluto shows a section through the area of Sputnik Planitia, with dark blue representing a subsurface ocean and light blue for the frozen crust. Artwork by Pam Engebretson, courtesy of UC Santa Cruz.
This cutaway image of Pluto shows a section through the area of Sputnik Planitia, with dark blue representing a subsurface ocean and light blue for the frozen crust. Artwork by Pam Engebretson, courtesy of UC Santa Cruz.

Nimmo said he suspects the ocean is mostly water with ammonia acting as an antifreeze. This subsurface ocean is also bulging, similar to the ‘mascons’ on the Moon, putting stress on Pluto’s icy outer shell, causing fractures consistent with features seen in the New Horizons images.

Another paper also published in Nature today from James Keane at the University of Arizona, also shows how a bulging subsurface ocean made Pluto’s heart ‘heavy,’ reorienting Pluto on its axis, so that Pluto’s heart is always pointing away from the moon Charon.

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to fractures and faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planitia.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to fractures and faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planitia. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Sputnik Planitia forms one side of the prominent heart-shaped feature seen in some of the first close-up images from New Horizons July 2015 flyby. It was likely created by the impact of a giant meteorite, which would have blasted away a huge amount of Pluto’s icy crust.

But a deep basin is just a “big, elliptical hole in the ground,” Nimmo said, that would not provide the extra mass needed to cause that kind of reorientation. “So, the extra weight must be hiding somewhere beneath the surface. And an ocean is a natural way to get that.”

These schematic diagrams show how the gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia is affected by an uplifted ocean and the thickness of the nitrogen layer. Either a nitrogen layer more than 40 km thick (panel b) or an uplifted ocean (panel c) could result in a present-day positive gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia; otherwise, the gravity anomaly will be strongly negative (panel a). (Image from Nimmo et al., Nature, 2016)
These schematic diagrams show how the gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia is affected by an uplifted ocean and the thickness of the nitrogen layer. Either a nitrogen layer more than 40 km thick (panel b) or an uplifted ocean (panel c) could result in a present-day positive gravity anomaly at Sputnik Planitia; otherwise, the gravity anomaly will be strongly negative (panel a). (Image from Nimmo et al., Nature, 2016)

But Pluto is cold, with temperatures ranging from -387 to -369 Fahrenheit (-233 to -223 Celsius). How could there be an ocean?

“Pluto is small enough that it’s just about almost cooled off but still has a little heat, and it’s about 2 percent the heat budget of the Earth, in terms of how much energy is coming out,” said co-author Richard Binzel, from MIT. “So we calculated Pluto’s size with its interior heat flow, and found that underneath Sputnik Planitia, at those temperatures and pressures, you could have a zone of water-ice that could be at least viscous. It’s not a liquid, flowing ocean, but maybe slushy. And we found this explanation was the only way to put the puzzle together that seems to make any sense.”

The massive basin also appears extremely bright relative to the rest of the planet, and the data from New Horizons suggest it is filled with frozen nitrogen ice.

Previous research from the the mission showed evidence that the liquid nitrogen may be constantly refreshing, or convecting, as a result of a weak spot at the bottom of the basin, and this weak spot may let heat rise through Pluto’s interior to continuously refresh the ice.

Additionally, the extra weight of an underground ocean could help explain the longstanding question of why Pluto’s heart aligns almost exactly opposite from Charon. Nimmo said this alignment is “suspicious” and that the likelihood of this being just a coincidence is only 5 percent. Therefore, the alignment suggests that extra mass in that location interacted with tidal forces between Pluto and Charon to reorient Pluto, putting Sputnik Planitia directly opposite the side facing Charon.

A thick, heavy ocean, the new data suggest, may have served as a “gravitational anomaly,” which would factor heavily in Pluto and Charon’s gravitational tug-of-war, the researchers said. Over millions of years, the planet would have spun around, aligning its subsurface ocean and the heart-shaped region above it, almost exactly opposite along the line connecting Pluto and Charon.

While scientists are still studying the data from New Horizons, it is safe to say that Pluto keeps surprising everyone, even the scientists who know it best.

“Pluto is hard to fathom on so many different levels,” said Binzel.

Further reading:
UC Santa Cruz
Nature Paper: Reorientation of Sputnik Planitia implies a subsurface ocean on Pluto
Nature Paper: Reorientation and faulting of Pluto due to volatile loading within Sputnik Planitia