Tag Archives: new horizons

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft set for historic rendez-vous with Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has officially begun its six month approach to the planet Pluto. This is the first time a human shuttle will flyby the icy dwarf planet.

Artistic representation of New Horizons nearing Pluto. Image via Imgtec.

Pluto, the former planet, currently considered a dwarf planet (a plutoid) is still interesting for astronomers, but its distance from the Earth makes it difficult to study and analyze. The main theory is that Pluto’s structure is differentiated, with the rocky material having settled into a dense core surrounded by a mantle of ice; it’s very possible that Pluto actually harbors a liquid ocean of water between the rock and the ice.

The New Horizons shuttle is a NASA space probe launched to study the dwarf planet Pluto, its moons and anything else in the vicinity. Following a 3 billion mile trip, New Horizons has awaken from its hibernation and is now ready to start gathering data about Pluto.

“We’ve completed the longest journey any craft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring!” Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, said in a NASA statement.

Indeed, the name New Horizons is a very fitting name. The mission will reveal information about a class of planets we have no direct observations of, and of which we know very little.

“New Horizons is on a journey to a new class of planets we’ve never seen, in a place we’ve never been before. For decades we thought Pluto was this odd little body on the planetary outskirts; now we know it’s really a gateway to an entire region of new worlds in the Kuiper Belt, and New Horizons is going to provide the first close-up look at them”, project leader Hal Weaver said.

New Horizons is well equipped for this mission – its scientific instruments include spectrometers (a Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera with a near-infrared imaging spectrometer, an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer and Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation), direct imagers, a dust analyzer and a radio science experiment. These instruments will gather continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits,

We’ll keep you posted with developments and information as New Horizons sends it in.

Pluto’s Moon may have harbored underground ocean

The new NASA-funded study showed that if the icy surface of Pluto’s giant moon Charon is cracked, analyzing the fractures could show if the interior was warm and perhaps warm enough to have maintained a subterranean ocean of liquid water.

Pluto is the most distant planetoid (no longer a planet, sorry) in the solar system. It’s extremely far from us, as it orbits the sun over 29 times faster than the Earth. The surface temperature estimated is approximately 380 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (around minus 229 degrees Celsius), which means it is way too cold to allow liquid water on its surface. Pluto’s moons are no less frigid than the planet they orbit around. Since until further investigation it is highly difficult to draw any conclusions, in July 2015 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to visit Pluto and Charon, and a much more detailed observation will be provided to the scientists.

‘Our model predicts different fracture patterns on the surface of Charon depending on the thickness of its surface ice, the structure of the moon’s interior and how easily it deforms, an how its orbit evolved. By comparing the actual New Horizons observations of Charon to the various predictions, we can see what fits best and discover if Charon could have had a subsurface ocean in its past, driven by high eccentricity,’ declared Alyssa Rhoden of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who is lead author of a paper on this research.

There are some moons around the gas giant planets in the outer solar system that have cracked surfaces with evidence for ocean interiors – Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are just two examples of this kind. Concerning Charon, the study finds that a past high eccentricity could have been the cause for high tides, causing friction and surface fractures.

Compared to Pluto, this moon is suspiciously massive, about one-eighth of its mass, an undoubted solar system record. And it’s thought to have formed even much closer to Pluto, as a result of a giant impact ejecting material off the planet’s surface. The material went, thus, into orbit around Pluto and coalesced under its own gravity to form Charon, along with other smaller moons.

The gravity between Pluto and Charon caused their surfaces to bulge toward each other, so there were strong tides on both worlds at the beginning. The friction resulting from this is believed to have caused the tides to slightly lag behind their orbit positions. The lag is believed to act like a brake on Pluto, which causes its rotation to slow while transferring the rotational energy to Charon. This, at its turn, makes the moon speed up and move farther away from Pluto.

Depending on exactly how Charon’s orbit evolved, particularly if we went through a high-eccentricity phase, there may have been enough heat from tidal deformation to maintain liquid water beneath the surface of Charon for some time. Using plausible interior structure models that include an ocean, we found that it wouldn’t have taken much eccentricity to generate surface fractures like we are seeing on Europa’, declared Roden.

According exclusively to the observations by telescopes, Charon’s orbit is in a stable end state – a circular orbit with the rotation of both Pluto and Charon slowed to the point where they always show the same side to each other. It’s this orbit that’s expected to generate significant tides, so there’s the possibility for any ancient underground ocean to be frozen, according to the scientist.

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Considering the fact that liquid water is believed to be essential in order to detect any known forms of life, the oceans in Europa and Enceladus are believed to be the places where there’s the possibility to found extraterrestrial life. However, a usable energy source is also required to maintain life, along with many key elements (among which carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus). Since there is no knowledge of the oceans harboring these additional ingredients, or if they existed for a period of time enough for life to form, the same questions apply to any other ancient ocean that may have existed beneath the icy crust of Charon.

The research was founded by the NASA Postdoctoral Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which is administrated by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and NASA Headquarters through the Science Innovation Fund.

Artist impression of the New Horizons spacecraft set to fly by the Pluto system in July 2015. (c) JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto’s moons pose grave threat to NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft

Artist impression of the New Horizons spacecraft set to fly by the Pluto system in July 2015. (c) JHUAPL/SWRI

Artist impression of the New Horizons spacecraft set to fly by the Pluto system in July 2015. (c) JHUAPL/SWRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is currently seven years into its nine-and-a-half-year journey across the Solar System to explore Pluto. Since its launch in 2006, however, astronomers have discovered two more moons orbiting the dwarf-planet, which now pose a grave threat to the spacecraft’s initial navigation course because of space debris orbiting them.

“We’ve found more and more moons orbiting near Pluto – the count is now up to five,” said Dr Alan Stern, chief scientist on the New Horizons mission.

“And we’ve come to appreciate that those moons, as well as those not yet discovered, act as debris generators populating the Pluto system with shards from collisions between those moons and small Kuiper Belt objects.”

Scientists are currently devising alternative routes which will stir the spacecraft out of harms way, while at the same time preserving the mission’s integrity.

“We want people to understand just how interesting and how nail-biting New Horizons’ mission might be,” said Stern. “This is part of the excitement of first-time exploration, of going to a new frontier.”

Space debris have always been a grave issue for NASA spacecrafts exploring deep in the solar system – currently New Horizons is  24 times farther away from the sun than Earth is, only  1,000 days away and 730 million miles (1,180 million kilometers) from closest approach to Pluto. Since it’s travelling at a whooping fast velocity –  more than 30,000 miles per hour – a collision with a single pebble, or even a millimeter-sized grain, could ruin the spacecraft beyond recovery. All these years, billions of dollars, and heartfelt passions could all be in vain, if a disaster isn’t averted.

With this in mind, NASA scientists are had at work tinkering solutions. The primary objective is currently identifying space debris in Pluto’s orbit using computer simulations, ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope. Meanwhile, the team is also plotting alternative, more distant courses through the Pluto system that would preserve most of the science mission.

“We’re worried that Pluto and its system of moons, the object of our scientific affection, may actually be a bit of a black widow,” Stern said. “We’ve come to appreciate that those moons, as well as those not yet discovered, act as debris generators populating the Pluto system with shards from collisions between those moons and small Kuiper Belt objects.”

An interesting safety precaution NASA engineers are currently considering is pointing New Horizons’ antenna dish forward, “to act as a meteorite shield to protect the spacecraft from impacts,” Stern said. “This technique is not new — the Cassini probe used that when crossing Saturn’s ring plane as well.”

The latest the research team can alter the spacecraft’s trajectory is about 10 days before it gets to Pluto. That gives NASA scientists a few years to plot the best course for New Horizons.

“After that, there’s not enough fuel to make a change,” Stern explained. “We don’t often get into situations in spaceflight where we have to make last-minute decisions. We’re going to learn as much as possible before our final approach in 2015.”

New pluto moon

New moon discovered around Pluto – the fifth

New pluto moon

Astronomers have discovered a new moon orbiting the dwarf planet of Pluto – its fifth – only a year after the former planet’s forth satellite was discovered.

In the past decade alone, four out of Pluto’s five moons known thus far have been discovered. The latest addition, provisionally titled S/2012 (134340) 1 or P5, is only between 6 and 15 miles (10 to 24 kilometers) in diameter, orbiting a mere 29,000 miles (47,000 km) away from Pluto and posses an irregular shape. P5 is believed to have formed, like the rest of Pluto’s moons, after a large body in the Kuiper belt collided with the dwarf planet. Because of its tiny size, the moon retained an irregular shape, since its gravity was too small to shape it into a sphere.

Pluto’s other satellites are Charon, discovered in 1978, Nix and Hydra discovered in 2005, and P4 first sighted in 2011. Charon was first imaged by the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station in Arizona, while the rest, including P5, were observed by the ever-resourceful Hubble Space Telescope.

New Pluto moon startles NASA officials

The discovery is slated to spark concern over the expected fly-by around Pluto of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The detection of P5, coupled with that of P4 last year, makes the surrounding area a lot more crowded than initially thought and warrants a re-trajectory if an unfortunate collision is to be 100% averted.

“We’re finding more and more, so our concern about hazards is going up,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

At this rate, there’s no telling how many more moons will be discovered in the future; people need to keep in mind that the Solar System is extremely vast. If the solar system were to be a truck, the sun, which is ~110 times the diameter of Earth across and can fit 1.3 million Earths in its volume, would represent a tiny dot on its surface. There’s still much to be discovered; much more.

What should we call P5?

The International Astronomical Union, which oversees the naming of celestial bodies, stipulates  that objects in Pluto’s vicinity must be named according to underworld mythology. Hence Pluto, Charon, Nix and Hydra. P4 and P5 have yet to be named. My picks would be Cerberus, Acheron or Tartarus.

Leave your suggestions for a name fit of Pluto’s new moon in the comment section below. This should be interesting. 

source: Hubble Site

Pluto might host a hidden ocean

Some astronomers have long believed that an ocean might lurk beneath Pluto’s ice, heated by isotopes undergoing a radioactive decay – but we’ll have to wait until 2015 to know for sure.

The New Horizons spacecraft is set to visit Pluto less than four years from now, and it will map the surface of the planetoid and its moon, Charon; aside from shape and other physical aspects, the mission might also reveal something that has been puzzling some for years: is there an ocean under Pluto’s ice?

Planetary scientists Guillaume Robuchon and Francis Nimmo, both of the University of California at Santa Cruz want to find out if this is the case really bad, and they are focusing on the type of signs which such an ocean would produce on the surface. They modeled the thermal evolution of the small ex-planet and studied the behavior of the shell to see how it would be affected in the case of an existing ocean. Ironically enough, the most visible feature would appear if there was no ocean at all.

What happens is that as planets and other celestial bodies spin, their angular momentum tends to push material towards the equator, forming a bulge; but if Pluto has a liquid layer, then the ice would flow, reducing such a protrusion.

“If the bulge is present, it will be about 6 miles (10 km) high, so it should be readily detectable,” Nimmo said.

New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver is extremely confident in his project:

“New Horizon imaging will measure the shape of Pluto very accurately.”

Launched in 2006, the mission has every chance to reach Pluto in April 2015, where it will also study any atmospheric make-up, temperature, and the way solar wind reacts to this planetoid.

It might seem like madness to search for liquid water in a planet four times further from the Sun than our planet, but the radioactive decay might give away just enough energy and heat for that; other signs look good too. The main radioactive element in this case would be potassium – just give Pluto enough radioactive potassium and you will have a liquid ocean. Guess what? The amount of potassium required for this would be about a tenth of that found in meteorites from the early solar system.

“I think there is a good chance that Pluto has enough potassium to maintain an ocean,” Nimmo said.

So, it’s obvious that Pluto is way out off the habitable zone, and still, the stubborn planetoid has every chance of harboring water (sidenote: I hate calling it a planetoid, can’t we just go back to planet?); could it host life?

As intriguing and surprising that option might be, the answer is most likely ‘no’. The organic nutrients necessary for life are probably long gone by now; but if by some totally unexpected and unlikely cosmic accident they would be there, it has every chance. Still, regardless of this, it’s obvious that we have to broaden our belief about habitable areas. After Jupiter’s moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto may each contain a sea under their icy surfaces, and Saturn’s moon Titan also shows hints of an underground water ocean.

Even more interesting are the objects in the Kuiper belt – a structure similar to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, which have similar conditions to Pluto, but also probably have necessary nutrients for life. Life on other planets or celestial bodies seems closer and closer every day.