Pluto’s Sputnik Planum Region is Likely a Large Impact Basin
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The icy region on Pluto, unofficially known as Sputnik Planum, is likely a large impact basin, say members of NASA’s New Horizons mission team in this abstract, presented at the 227th meeting of American Astronomical Society (AAS). One of the most startling features seen on Pluto is a vast, nearly crater-free plain of oddly patterned nitrogen and methane ices. An eroded plateau to the northeast, and high peaks to the southwest with a different morphology suggest a massive irregularly shaped impact basin, similar to that of the Caloris Basin on Mercury. After the impact on Pluto, the basin filled up with ices, eliminating any visual traces of former impact craters in the region. The lack of cratering, and evidence of glaciation show that Sputnik Planum is relatively young, and geologically active. Read more: We Finally Think We Know What Caused Pluto’s Weird, Bumpy Plains Pluto’s weird, icy plains likely caused by Manhattan-sized asteroid Abstract: A Large Impact Origin for Sputnik … Continue reading

Mountains and Glaciers on Pluto
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NASA’s New Horizons Mission has released a high-resolution enhanced-color mosaic of Pluto, showing a beautiful swath of the dwarf planet’s surface. The image above shows a potions of the “badlands” region northwest of the Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountain range, over the shores of Pluto’s now iconic “heart” feature, to the edge of vast icy plains of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices. The images used to create this mosaic have resolutions of about 77-85 meters (250-280 feet) per pixel, revealing features smaller than half a city block. Note: The names of geologic features on Pluto are currently all provisional, until approved by the IAU. Educational Resources NASA Eyes on the Solar System: Pluto Lesson Plans and Educational Activities New Horizons Pinterest Page New Horizons Image Gallery New Horizons Mission Overview View Pluto in Google Earth with this KML file! (This is really cool! Requires: Google Earth) Read More: Johns Hopkins University Press Release: New Horizons Returns the First … Continue reading

Encounter Fashions: The Hats of New Horizons
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When I set out to experience a Pluto flyby, I did not anticipate that I would be getting involved with hats. In the middle of July, I was hanging around the Kossiakoff Conference and Education Center at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, home of the New Horizons project. I was there to assist a team of educators working on public outreach about the mission. Over a thousand visitors were present. In a corner of the center was a table. Artwork of Pluto, its moon Charon, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft decorated a large backdrop behind the table. On the table was a professionally-made one-eighth-scale model of the spacecraft. It was a very nice model. But it wasn’t what drew the attention of visitors. What visitors were looking at was the hats. Large hats. In the shape of the New Horizons spacecraft. … Continue reading

Encounter Day, Evening: “We’re Outbound from Pluto”
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We spent Tuesday, the 14th of July, in suspense, not knowing whether the Pluto flyby had been a success. Just as planned, the spacecraft had not transmitted any signal since Monday.  I was among the visitors at the home base of the New Horizons spacecraft, the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Late in the afternoon, the spacecraft antenna pointed briefly back at Earth. The plan was to send a squirt of status data for a few minutes. Moving at the speed of light, this signal would not reach Earth until four and a half hours later, at 8:52 PM Laurel time. Around 8:00, the conference center was filling up with people. The crowd watched a NASA TV feed. Had the spacecraft functioned correctly? The feed switched to the New Horizons operations center in another building. “Carrier lock” had been achieved. This brought relieved applause! Then controllers confirmed seeing good telemetry from several systems, each reporting … Continue reading

Encounter Day, Morning: The Heart of Pluto
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As I left the Applied Physics Laboratory on the evening of Monday, 13 July—a day I wrote about in “Land of the Plutophiles”—I knew the New Horizons spacecraft would fall silent that night. Across the gulf between here and Pluto, the slow transmission of images and other data takes a lot of time. Pointing instruments this way and that, as the spacecraft covered Pluto, Charon, the smaller moons, and the space between, left no time to pause and point the high-gain dish antenna at Earth—especially during the crucial hours near closest approach. Instead the plan was to record all data in New Horizons’ onboard memory. There would be plenty of time, if all went well, to transmit the data in the months following the flyby. During Monday, nevertheless, a few key “insurance” observations had been transmitted. The chance of collision with a destructive grain of dust, or disruption by a cosmic ray, was remote, but not zero. In case of … Continue reading

Pluto, Comet 67P/C-G, and Ceres – Oh My!
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New images from Pluto! New images of Comet 67P/C-G! New images of Ceres! This has been a week of “Too Much Input!” Yesterday, new images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft had Twitter awash with admiration; some were saying that the following image is the most compelling ever released from the space program. I’m not quite there, but close – it is jaw-dropping! The ESA’s Rosetta mission posted some post-perigee images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, still active and jetting: NASA’s Dawn mission, currently in its high level mapping orbit, has been posting copious amounts of new images of the surface of dwarf planet Ceres: For years now, at every meeting of the Warren Astronomical Society, fellow Solar System Ambassador Ken Bertin has presented an “In the News” segment; he mentioned to me that two decades ago, there was so little astronomy and space science news, he had trouble putting together much of a report. Today, he has to sift through … Continue reading

Hazy Pluto
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Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders. “We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now — 10 days after closest approach — we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.” Just seven hours after closest approach, New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) back at Pluto, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and revealing hazes as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze — one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about … Continue reading

New Horizons Encounter With Pluto
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As the New Horizons probe passes by dwarf planet Pluto and its satellites on July 14th, it will use a host of instruments to collect data. The following is the sequence of events for the flyby: On approach, LORRI takes critical optical navigation images to confirm the spacecraft is on the right course for the flyby.  The team can use these data to adjust timing of the observation sequence as late as July 12. Final radio transmission prior to closest approach is received at ~11:15pm EDT on July 13. During the flyby on July 14, LORRI will take high-resolution B/W images, Ralph / MVIC will make color maps, and Ralph / LEISA will image the system in the infrared, all of which will help determine the geology and composition of the surface. Closest approach to Pluto is at 7:49:57 a.m. EDT on July 14. Approximately one hour after closest approach, at 8:51am EDT on July 14, the spacecraft will turn around and, with Pluto between it and the … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Tradition… and Pluto
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The imminent flyby of Pluto by New Horizons has brought that Dwarf Planet back into everyone’s mind. The following column was written in 2006, just after the IAU had voted to name Pluto a Dwarf. It ran in The Tablet in August, 2006. Never mind the 2,500 astronomers attending dozens of seminars and joint discussions about stars and galaxies in Prague; the news this week [2006] at the triennial General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is the changing status of Pluto. General Assemblies are different from typical scientific congresses. Rather than being focused exclusively on presenting scientific results, the main point here is to decide on all the arbitrary but necessary definitions that let us talk to each other and understand each others’ data. For example, we’re worrying about tweaking definition of latitude and longitude on the Moon to match the the expected precision of the coming generation of lunar spacecraft from India, China, Japan, and the US. Likewise, defining “what … Continue reading

New Horizons Pluto Mission Recovered from Anomaly
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NASA’s New Horizon’s mission, scheduled to flyby dwarf planet Pluto and its moons on July 14th, suffered an anomaly on July 4th, causing a temporary loss of communications with the spacecraft. No images were scheduled to be taken during the down-time, and science data collection was only minimally affected. From a John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Press Release: The recovery from a July 4 anomaly that sent the New Horizons spacecraft into safe mode is proceeding according to plan, with the mission team preparing to return to normal science operations on time on July 7. Mission managers reported during a July 6 media teleconference that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft resumed operations on its main computer overnight. The sequence of commands for the Pluto flyby have now been uplinked to the spacecraft, and full, as-planned science observations of Pluto, its moons and the solar winds will resume at 12:34 p.m. EDT July 7. The quick response to the weekend computer glitch … Continue reading

Across the Universe: By Paper, to the Stars
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This column was first published in The Tablet in June, 2004… read the end to find out what happened! The people who design airplanes say that a plane can’t fly until its weight is matched by the weight of its paperwork. The same must be true for launching spacecraft to another planet. Last month [May 2004] I took part on a NASA panel in Washington DC, reviewing five competing plans to build a planetary probe; in the run-up to the panel I was shipped 30 pounds of paper to read. NASA’s “New Frontiers” program is a development of another project driven by piles of paperwork: the Solar System Decadal Survey commissioned by NASA and executed by the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. After hearing from hundreds of planetary scientists at meetings around the world (and reading white papers solicited and gathered by various international  societies) a committee of graybeards outlined where NASA should be spending its money over the next … Continue reading

New Horizons Returns First Color Image of Pluto and Charon
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This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken on April 9th by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, and downloaded to Earth the following day. The image was taken from a distance of about 115 million kilometers (71 million miles) – about the distance from the Sun to Venus. This is the first color image ever taken of the Pluto-charon system by a robotic spacecraft on approach. The image is a preliminary reconstruction, to be further processed later by the New Horizons science team. Although blurry at this distance, distinct differences can be seen between the two bodies. The resolution will continue to improve as New Horizons approaches Pluto for its flyby on July 14, 2015. The data rate from New Horizons will be very low at its great distance – it will take months for all the data to be completely downloaded. Source: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu … Continue reading