Tag Archives: pluto

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.

Dwarf planet Eris, which led to Pluto’s demise as a planet, may bring back it’s status

Eris is a dwarf planet, observed in 2005 for the first time, whose discovery led to Pluto losing its planet status, even though a new moon was found orbiting it; recently, Eris passed in front of a planet, giving astrophysicists a clear view for the first time.

Until now, the general scientific idea regarding it was pretty fuzzy; they believed it was about 25% larger than Pluto, but nobody was able to say for sure, because the distance between it and Earth was about three times bigger than between Pluto and the Sun.

“It’s very difficult, because it’s so small in the sky,” said lead author Bruno Sicardy, a planetary scientist at Pierre and Marie Curie University and Observatory in Paris.

When trying to measure the size of such objects, located outside our solar system, they wait for what is called a stellar occultation – the moment in which the object passes in front of a star, and basically casts a shadow over the Earth. From the data, scientists estimated the size of the radius to be about 1,445 miles – about as big as Pluto, which as a diameter of approximately 1,429 miles.

The fact that it is significantly smaller than previously believed might not seem significant at first, but what it means is that the amount of light scientists had detected coming from it originated from a smaller area than calculated, and so the planet is much brighter than believed at first. As a matter of fact, this would make Eris one of the brightest objects in the solar system even though its surface should have been darkened from bombardment by cosmic rays and micrometeorites. How can this be?

The authors suggest that this might happen because of a really thin layer of methane-and-nitrogen frost, no bigger than a few milimeters, which clothes the surface of the planet. This frost, they say, was probably once an atmosphere 10,000 times thinner than Pluto’s that froze onto the surface in the frigid temperatures as Eris traveled away from the sun on its 557-year orbit.

The thing is, Pluto’s size is not precisely known, but since Eris might be much smaller than previously believed, the subject of Pluto being a planet might be brought back to the table.

Still, regardless of size, Eris is about 27% heavier than Pluto. This means it must contain relatively more rock and less ice.

“We really think [Eris and Pluto] should have been made at the same time out of the same materials — so really, it’s bizarre that they’re so different,” Brown said.

Via LA Times

Pluto gets a new moonand still isn’t a planet

All eyes seem to be pointed on Jupiter and Mars these days, with NASA probes being planned for both of them, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a spacecraft currently heading towards the edge of the solar system, aimed straight at Pluto at a speed of 80,000 kilometers per hour.

Even at this speed though, it will still take 4 more years before it gets there, so astronomers have been spying ahead with the Hubble telescope, in the attempt of finding anything that could damage or even destroy the shuttle. What they found was something nobody really expected – a new moon, not noticed by anyone else before.

Nicknamed P4, until it gets a real name, this new moon joins Charon, Nix and Hydra, but there’s a good reason why nobody noticed it so far. With a diameter varying somewhere between 13 and 33 km, it is all but impssible to see from Earth.

“We always knew it was possible there were more moons out there,” says Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and a co-discoverer of the new moon. “And lo and behold, there it was.”

It’s extremely unlikely that the new found Moon will have any impact on the mission. In the meantime, Pluto still maintains its status as a dwarf planet, much to the dismay of some. Showalter, on the other hand, doesn’t think it matters what you call Pluto.

“I don’t see dwarf planet as a demotion,” he says. “Think of bonsai trees. The fact that they’re so small is what makes them interesting. So if you don’t like the term dwarf planet, just think of Pluto as a bonsai planet.”

Pluto's moon system. (c) NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI

Hubble discoveres new moon around Pluto

Hubble image revealing new moon, P4. (c) NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Hubble image revealing new moon, P4. (c) NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Astronomers have discovered a fourth moon orbiting Pluto via the famous Hubble telescope, NASA announced this Wednesday.

Some of you might be wondering, just exactly how was it possible for astronomers to have missed it so far, considering NASA’s been tracking space rocks even from the edge of the solar system. The truth is, our solar system is vast, and more or less everything revolves around a game of chance. In case of pluto’s newly discovered forth moon, temporarily dubbed P4 until a more mythologically-suited title can be attained, the object is so small that it simply didn’t stood out yet.

Actually, NASA says there’s a chance it appeared as a very faint smudge in 2006 images, but was overlooked because it was obscured by the short exposure time.

Discovered during a Hubble survey that was looking for rings around the dwarf planet, P4 has an estimated diameter between eight to 21 miles and is located between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, Pluto’s second and, respectively, third-largest moons, which were discovered by Hubble in 2005. Charon is the largest, with a diameter of more than 1,000 kilometers.

“I find it remarkable that Hubble’s cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than three billion miles,” says Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute, who led the observations.

Pluto's moon system. (c) NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI

Pluto's moon system. (c) NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI

The discovery comes right in the nick of time, as NASA scientists prep for the much anticipated New Horizons mission, scheduled to fly through the Pluto system in 2015.

“This is a fantastic discovery,” said New Horizons’ principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. in the statement. “Now that we know there’s another moon in the Pluto system, we can plan close-up observations of it during our flyby.”

NASA scientists believe Pluto’s moons formed after another large object collided with it in the early years of our solar systems. As a result of the clash, material was sprung out and thus Pluto’s four moons, that we know of, were formed. Looking for rings around Pluto that might have been coalesced around the same period with the moon formations, Hubble caught a glimpse of P4 absolutely by chance with its Wide Field Camera 3 on June 28, and confirmed the sighting  in pictures taken on July 3 and July 18.

Pluto has been caught up in a continuing astronomical debate over the definition of a planet since a 2006 International Astronomical Union vote to make it a dwarf planet.

Pluto is changing colors


Pluto is so upset that it’s no longer a planet, that it’s turning all red with anger ! No, seriously. There’s been a whole lot of “Pluto-related news” these days including the 2006 chalking off of the planet list, and naming it a “dwarf planet”, and the news just gets better and better.

Recently, astronomers were stunned to find out that the planet is actually changing colors, and turning more and more red. The official color is still orange-yellow, but the red pigmentation has increased with about 20 percent in a relatively extremely short period.

Due to the great distance and the the fact that one Pluto year has 248 Earth years it’s hard to explain why this happens, but the most satisfying theory is that the hydrogen atoms are being stripped from Pluto’s methane by solar winds, leaving carbon rich areas that look redder. My theory is that Pluto is crazy angry because of the whole “you’re not a planet thing”… so let’s just call it a planet again, and I’m sure it’ll all go back to normal.