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New Horizons images suggest Pluto is geologically active

NASA released a stunningly colorful new image of the dwarf planet Pluto, the latest in a series of images that steadily trickle down from the New Horizons probe since it left the solar system this July. And it’s not only eye candy either; the features this picture reveals has left the smart guys at the agency scratching their heads.

Groovy. Image via NASA

Image via NASA

One of the most interesting features is the large, heart-shaped lobe on the western side of Pluto, named the Sputnik Planum. What’s striking about it is, ironically, what doesn’t seem to be striking it — there are no craters here. Researchers were left scratching their heads at this huge but crater-free plain; a lot of meteors hit the dwarf planet and have been doing so since before humans evolved, so why isn’t there any evidence of impact?

The only explanation is that the surface is new — NASA estimates that the Planum is only about 10 million years old. When compared with the humongous 4.5 billion-years estimated age of the solar system, it suggests that you can find the great heat and pressure needed to reshape rocks on such a huge scale on the dwarf, that Pluto is still geologically active.

“It’s a huge finding that small planets can be active on a massive scale, billions of years after their creation,” said New Horizons lead investigator, Alan Stern.

The photo was presented at the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society meeting in National Harbor, MD on Monday, and the team also presented a number of other findings: information about Pluto’s thin and hazy atmosphere, and the discovery of what they believe to be an ice volcano on the surface.

Still, the lack of craters on Sputnik Planum remains one of the most stunning discoveries about the planet. The surface couldn’t have been exposed to the meteors and asteroids barreling through space for very long, meaning it was “added” quite recently. Other areas of Pluto are much older, some close to the 4 billion years mark.

Stern believes that the dwarf planet has been geologically active for much of it’s life. However, as the planet is so small, any heat it might have retained after its creation would have dissipated into space a long time ago — so the scientists don’t know what could be driving geological processes on Pluto.

But now, at least, they have a good starting point.


The closest shot of Pluto made by New Horizon yet. Image: NASA

Here’s our closest image of Pluto so far, taken just this morning

Racing at a pace of about a million miles per day, the New Horizon craft is getting closer to Pluto and so are the pictures it’s beaming back. Previously, we’ve shown you the first colored pics of Pluto taken by New Horizon, and its moons. Some of you were disappointed when you got to see only a couple of pale pixels, so this latest shot taken just this morning might be more exciting to watch.

The closest shot of Pluto made by New Horizon yet. Image: NASA

The closest shot of Pluto made by New Horizon yet. Image: NASA

This time you can clearly distinguish Pluto and its largest moon Charon. And if you raise the brightness of your display a couple of notches, you’ll be able to distinguish its other two moons, Hydra and Nix. If you’re wondering what’s with the star-trails, here’s an explanation from NASA:

“This image contains one or more objects whose brightness exceeds the detector’s saturation level. This sometimes produces a “tail” of bright and/or dark pixels to the right of the object. You may also notice a faint vertical white stripe passing through the saturated object; this is an artifact called “frame transfer smear” and is associated with the incomplete removal of signal produced when the image is transferred from the optically active region of the detector to the storage region of the detector. If the target is badly saturated, you may also notice a faint, X-shaped feature nearly centered on the object; these are optical diffraction spikes.

Enhanced view of Pluto

Enhanced view of Pluto

This image contains one or more streaks associated with cosmic rays passing through the detector. Nearly every LORRI image has at least one cosmic ray strike, but most are “single pixel” events (i.e., they only appear to be in single pixel and can easily be mistaken for stars). But sometimes a cosmic ray is energetic enough that it leaves a “trail” as it passes through the LORRI detector.”

Just imagine in three short weeks New Horizon will be close enough to make a flyby past Pluto. I can’t even fathom the level of detail we’ll get to see. But that’s another story, and you can be sure ZME Science will report the first pics as they come out.

pluto's moon new horizon

New Horizon gets close enough to spot Pluto’s moons

pluto's moon new horizon

Nine years and 3 billion miles later, New Horizon finally got close enough to Pluto to spot it along with all its faint moons. The probe photographed Pluto’s five “underworld” satellites, Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx, Long Range Reconnaissance Imager with 10 seconds exposure. Light is a bit faint once you’re so far away from the sun that there aren’t any planets left to explore. Not if you count Pluto as one, though, since New Horizon will flyby past it in July. Some still stick to calling Pluto a planet, though officially it’s been demoted to dwarf planet status.

pluto's moons

Left: unprocessed image. Right: Pluto in the center, circled by its moons.

The photos were taken 90 million km away from Pluto, but despite of the great distance the quality is quite good. Imagine that  Kerberos and Styx were only found by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2011 and 2012. Now, a craft made by humans and launched from Earth will soon zip past them. It’s all quite exciting, and if you thought these photos are cool, wait until New Horizon beams back some real gems on July 14. Past this date, New Horizon will become the first probe in history to have raced past all “nine traditional planets.”

Pluto has a diameter of about 2,300km; Charon is half that. Hydra may reach over 100km. The other three moons, however, only measure a few tens of kilometers in diameter. Because Charon is bigger and brighter, it didn’t fit in this particular photo taken by the probe. You can see it here, though, in this image taken at a much farther distance.

new horizon spacecraft

Digital illustration of New Horizon. Image: NASA


Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

Pluto – now in color, courtesy of New Horizon

These two dim dots are none other than Pluto, the dwarf plant, and Charon, its largest moon. Though it might not look like much, this is the first ever colored photograph of the two cosmic bodies ever taken. We have NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to thank for this, which used its Ralph color imager to make the shot from 71 million miles away.

Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

Pluto and Charon. Image: NASA

Even though this is very exciting, soon enough we’ll be treated to some very impressive photos as the probe gets closer and closer to Pluto, eventually making a flyby on July 17. In the meantime, NASA will release some more photos from the epic journey, as we’ve become used to (thank you, NASA!). Of course, New Horizon won’t stop there. After Pluto, it will delve into the Kuiper Belt –  a region of space filled with trillions of icy bodies, remnants of the early solar system – and beyond.

“It sounds like science fiction but it is not,” said Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator, Agence France-Presse reported.

“Three months from today, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make the first exploration of the Pluto system, the Kuiper Belt and the farthest shore of exploration ever reached by humankind,” Stern said.

The 1,000 pound spacecraft was launched nine years ago from Earth and has since made its way through most of the inner solar system, at a pace of about a million miles a day. This makes it the fastest spacecraft ever launched, powered by a plutonium nuclear reactor.

Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is about the size of Texas. Some papers were published suggesting that the moon might have a thin atmosphere or even a frozen ocean, so it will be very exciting to see what it holds on its surface once New Horizon creeps near.

“There’s no doubt, Charon is a rising star in terms of scientific interest, and we can’t wait to reveal it in detail in July,” said Leslie Young, deputy project scientist, NASA reported.

This montage of New Horizons images shows Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io, and were taken during the spacecraft's Jupiter flyby in early 2007. Image: NASA

This montage of New Horizons images shows Jupiter and its volcanic moon Io, and were taken during the spacecraft’s Jupiter flyby in early 2007. Image: NASA

Previously, New Horizon took some of the most outstanding photos of planets like Neptune or Jupiter, and moons like Io or Europa. The scientific and artistic contribution of the probe is thus invaluable.

“This is pure exploration. We’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!” Stern said, according to a NASA report.

“Nothing like this has been done in a quarter century and nothing like this is planned by any space agency ever again,” he said.


Artist impression of New Horizon. Credit: NASA

New Horizon probe back online after 9 year journey to Pluto

Nine years and three billion miles later, NASA’s New Horizon probe awoke once it neared a strip close to Pluto. The probe was kept in hibernation for more than two thirds of its trek and will is soon expected to finally explore the dwarf planet and, most importantly, the world that surrounds it – the Kuiper belt. It’s the farthest any spacecraft has gone to reach its primary target.

Eyes wide open

Artist impression of New Horizon. Credit: NASA

Artist impression of New Horizon. Credit: NASA

“This is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute.

New Horizon launched from Earth on January 19, 2006 and since then has traveled  2.9 billion miles, passing by all the planets in our solar system the most recent of which was Neptune, in August. During the 1,873 days since it embarked on its epic journey, the probe has been mostly kept asleep to preserve instruments integrity and prevent any failures. The hibernation was intermittent however, as the probe was briefly awoken 18 times to check its status only for engineers to put it back to sleep for periods ranging between 36 and 202 days. Nearing the end of its journey, the probe is just 162 million miles from Pluto.

[ALSO READ] Space debris near Pluto threaten New Horizon

The image shows where the probe's instruments are positioned. Credit: NASA

The image shows where the probe’s instruments are positioned. Credit: NASA

Today, at 9:53 p.m. EST, engineers at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory awoke New Horizon once again for its longest expected period of activity, reporting all systems all in perfect order. The team tested infrared and ultraviolet imaging spectrometers, a compact multicolour camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers and a space dust detector. Scientists were a bit tense with expectation, however, since at such a vast distance it takes 4 hours and 26 minutes for the signal to transit between New Horizons and the NASA Deep Space Network in Canberra, Australia.

“Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before, said New Horizons project manager Glen Fountain. “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”

Why this probe is important

New Horizon craft

Credit: NASA

So, what’s this big deal all about? Near the very outer edge of our solar system, Pluto, its moons and the mysterious Kuiper belt are very poorly understood. During its mission, New Horizon will beam back exclusive photos and chemical signatures, impossible to read at this level of detail with other instruments like the Hubble Telescope.

Pluto has five moons: Charon, Hydra, Nix, Kerberos and Styx. But just so you can get an idea of how blurry our view of Pluto is, one of its satellites, Styx, was only discovered a few years ago.

[RELATED] Pluto might host a hidden ocean

New Horizons’ flyby of Pluto happens on July 14, 2015 at 11:50 UT, but it will begin gathering science data in January and will not finish returning all of the data until late 2016. Because it will be traveling so fast, nearly all of the most important goals for the mission are met in the time from 2.5 hours before to 1 hour after closest approach. The Pluto mission is divided into several phases:

  • Approach Phase 1: 180 to 100 days before closest approach (Jan 6-Apr 4; range to Pluto is 226-121 million km). SWAP and PEPSSI will measure plasma. LORRI will monitor motions of Pluto, Charon, and the smaller moons. Pluto is barely resolved.
  • Approach Phase 2: 100 to 21 days before closest approach (Apr 4-Jun 23; range to Pluto is 121-26 million km). Add in color observations, and search for satellites and rings. The start of this phase is chosen to roughly coincide with the time when LORRI has better resolution than Hubble, but Pluto will still be only a few pixels across.
  • Approach Phase 3: 21 to 1 days before closest approach (Jun 23-Jul 13; range to Pluto is 26-1.2 million km). Includes best, second-best, and third-best rotation coverage before closest approach, yielding the best global maps of Pluto and Charon. PEPSSI and SWAP may detect pickup ions and bow shock. LEISA and Alice can begin looking for variability in IR and UV. Search for clouds or hazes, tracking winds.
  • Near Encounter Phase: -1 to +1 days (Jul 13-15, within 1.2 million km) — sequenced in 2008 and 2009. Most of the highest-priority observations.
  • Departure Phase 1: 1 to 21 days after closest approach (Jul 15-Aug 4; range to Pluto is 1.2 to 24 million km). Remote sensing of Pluto and Charon is performed for only 1 rotation. SWAP and PEPSSI study magnetotail, pickup ions. REX studies nightside temperatures. Nix and Hydra high-phase observations. Search for rings.
  • Departure Phase 2: 21 to 100 days after closest approach (Aug 5-Oct 22; range to Pluto is 24 to 119 million km).
  • Departure Phase 3: 100 to 180 days after (Oct 22-Jan 1, 2016; range to Pluto is 119 to 203 million km). No remote sensing observations planned.

Once it’s finished here, New Horizon will visit one or more Kuiper Belt Objects beyond Pluto. Here the probe will find objects believed to be representative of the material which condensed to form the other planets.  Their growth into full sized planets was arrested early in the history of the solar system.  Hence they hold clues about the distant past of the solar system and the chemical endowment of all the planets including our Earth. In the belt, there are billions of objects with a diameter greater than 10 km.