Category Archives: Pluto

Is That an Ice Cap? New Horizons Detects First Details on Pluto

A full rotation of Pluto and Charon, captured by New Horizons from April 12-18, 2015

A full rotation of Pluto and Charon, captured by New Horizons from April 12-18, 2015

Taken from a distance of about 69 to 64 million miles – just about the distance between the Sun and Venus – the images that make up this animation were captured by the LORRI imaging instrument aboard the New Horizons spacecraft and show its first detection of surface features on Pluto, including what may be the bright reflection of a polar ice cap!

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New Horizons Has Caught Its First Color Pic of Pluto

Pluto and Charon imaged by New Horizons on April 9, 2015

Pluto and Charon imaged by New Horizons on April 9, 2015

In a historic first – just one of many that will be made over the next several months, to be sure! – the New Horizons spacecraft captured its first color image of Pluto and its partner/satellite Charon on April 9 from a distance of 71 million miles – about equivalent to that between Venus and the Sun. The orange blobs above are the two worlds locked in an orbital dance a mere 12,200 miles apart… that’s 20 times less than the distance between Earth and the Moon!

The image was captured with New Horizons’ “Ralph” instrument, a Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) built for the mission by Ball Aerospace (which is a spinoff of the same company that became famous in the U.S. for its glass canning jars.)

Ralph is one of six science instruments aboard New Horizons; it is paired with “Alice,” an ultraviolet imaging camera. (Think Ralph and Alice Kramden.) When New Horizons makes its close pass by Pluto and Charon on July 14 these cameras will capture details of the icy worlds like never before seen.

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What Will We Name the Features on Pluto? You Decide.

Artist's impression of Pluto and Charon's surfaces (via SETI and Mark Showalter)

Artist’s impression of Pluto and Charon’s surfaces (via SETI and Mark Showalter)

This July the New Horizons spacecraft will perform its long-awaited flyby through the Pluto system, capturing unprecedented data and images of the distant icy planet and its companion satellites Charon, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx. The first two worlds, in particular, will have their surfaces seen in high-resolution, allowing scientists to observe and map their features for the very first time. But as landforms come into view – craters, mountains, scarps, plains, and who knows what else – what will they be named?

This is where YOU come in.

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Closing In on Planet Pluto: an Interview with New Horizons PI Alan Stern

Artist's impression of the New Horizons flyby in July 2015. (NASA/SwRI)

Artist’s impression of the New Horizons flyby in July 2015. (NASA/SwRI)

After more than nine years of traveling through space the New Horizons spacecraft is now in the home stretch of its journey, with less than 120 days and 143 million kilometers to go before it makes its historic flyby of the Pluto system on July 14. It will be the first time we get a good close-up look at the distant world which had for over seven decades held reign over the frozen edges of our Solar System as the outermost planet, much like its namesake governed the cold darkness of the mythological Greek underworld.

Discovered on February 18, 1930, the ninth planet Pluto lost its “full” planetary status in August 2006 as the result of a highly-contested decision by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to create a new class of “dwarf planets,” of which Pluto, Ceres, and the then-recently-discovered Eris became charter members. Seven months after New Horizons launched, the edict did not sit well with both many members of the planetary science community and the public, who were suddenly informed that little Pluto just didn’t measure up and had to be let go… nothing serious, right?

Wrong. It was a serious scientific issue for many people, and especially for Dr. Alan Stern, Associate Vice President of Space Science and Engineering at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO and principal investigator of New Horizons. And understandably so – Dr. Stern’s planetary exploration mission is on its way to Pluto after all, and what it’s expected to encounter is far more complex than what’s implied by the diminutive moniker of “dwarf planet” (which, oddly enough, was coined by Stern himself in 1990.)

I had a change to talk briefly with Dr. Stern on Friday, March 13 – which, incidentally, was the 85th anniversary of Pluto’s first announcement to the world – and got some insight from him on the mission and what we can expect from the upcoming flyby, as well as his views on the whole “planet/dwarf planet” thing. (And yes, it certainly does still matter!)
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New Horizons Grabs Its First On-Approach Images of Pluto

Pluto and Charon captured by New Horizons on Jan. 25 and 27, 2015. (Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Pluto and Charon captured by New Horizons on Jan. 25 and 27, 2015. (Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

After more than nine years of rocketing outwards through the Solar System, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now zeroing in on its targets: the dwarf planet Pluto and its family of frozen moons, orbiting the Sun over three billion miles away from Earth.

The images above show Pluto and its largest moon Charon on January 25 and 27, captured by the spacecraft’s LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Orbiter) camera. These are the first pictures of the two worlds to be taken during the approach phase of the mission (which New Horizons officially began in on Jan. 15.)

“Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light. LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and the dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets.”
– Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

What’s more, these images were released on Feb. 4, which is the birthday of Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh (1906–1997).

This July New Horizons will become the first spacecraft ever to make a close pass of Pluto, revealing it in intimate detail for the first time. These LORRI images are just a tiny tease at what’s in store!

Read the rest of my story on Discovery News here, and learn more about Pluto and the mission here.

New Horizons Captures Pluto and Charon Orbiting

Animation of Pluto and Charon showing nearly a full rotation (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Animation of Pluto and Charon showing nearly a full rotation (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Whether you think Pluto is a planet, a dwarf planet, a Kuiper Belt Object – or something else entirely – you should still be fascinated by this: a video of the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon Charon showing the two distinctly separate worlds actually in motion around each other! Captured by the New Horizons spacecraft from July 19–24, the 12 images that comprise this animation were acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument from distances of 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million km) and show nearly a full orbital rotation. Amazing!

Read more and see a close-up of these two distant worlds in my article on Universe Today here.

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