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There’s More Water Ice on Pluto Than First Thought

Initial scans of Pluto's water ice (left) and new interpretations taking into account other elements and compounds (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Initial scans of Pluto’s pure water ice (color data, left) and new interpretations taking into account other elements and compounds (right). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

When New Horizons made its close pass pf Pluto on July 14, 2015, it did much more than just take pretty pictures; it was also scanning the planet with a suite of science instruments designed to determine the nature of its surface, atmosphere, composition, and other key characteristics. One of these instruments was the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA), an infrared scanner that can detect the unique molecular “fingerprints” of particular elements and compounds like methane, nitrogen, carbon monoxide… and water (one of our favorites!)

At first the data returned from LEISA showed only a surprisingly small amount of water ice across Pluto’s surface. But that was water ice in its pure form; when researchers took into consideration ice containing a mixture of water and other materials they found a much more widespread distribution across the surface area visible to New Horizons.

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A Craterful of Cracks

The northwest quadrant of a frost-filled crater on Mars. Original image ESP_042895_2495; credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

The northwest quadrant of a frost-filled crater on Mars. Original image ESP_042895_2495; credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

Here’s a view of a section of a crater on Mars filled with a lacework of bright spidery fractures, acquired on Sept. 20, 2015 with the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The crater is approximately 3 miles (5 km) wide and located in Mars’ north polar region, and its old, infilled interior has undergone countless millennia of freeze/thaw cycles that have broken the surface into polygons of all sizes, outlined by frost-filled cracks.

The fractured segments get increasingly more compressed closer to the crater rim, which contains the outward freeze expansion.

According to the image description from the HiRISE team:
The crater rim constrains the polygon formation within the crater close to the rim, creating a spoke and ring pattern of cracks. This leads to more rectangular polygons than those near the center of the crater. The polygons close to the center of the crater display a more typical pattern. A closer look shows some of these central polygons, which have smaller polygons within them, and smaller polygons within those smaller polygons, which makes for a natural fractal! 

See a wider view of the imaged region here.

Source: HiRISE/University of Arizona

Pluto Is the New Science Star of the Solar System

This "psychedelic" picture of Pluto accentuates the subtlest color differences across its surface. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This “psychedelic” picture of Pluto accentuates the subtlest color differences across its surface. (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Now over four months after the historic and long-awaited flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, planetary scientists have had a steady stream of unprecedented data arriving on Earth from the outwardly-speeding spacecraft. We’ve learned more about Pluto in the past few months than we had over the decades before and the information is still being analyzed — and is still coming. This surprising little world and its strange family of mismatched moons, 33 times farther from the Sun than us, has become in the latter half of 2015 the scientific “star of the Solar System.” (Take that all you can’t-be-a-planet folks!)

“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the Solar System. Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”
– Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, SwRI

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Surprise: Ceres’ Bright Spots are Probably Salt

Scientists are now

Scientists are now “pretty sure” that the bright spots in Ceres’ Occator crater are salt deposits. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

So now that NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been in orbit around Ceres for seven months, has the nature of its strange bright spots finally been determined? Are they brilliantly reflective deposits of water ice, as many initially suspected? Or just some curiously-bright rock faces? (Or the metallic remains of an ancient alien space base, like more than a few folks have imagined?) As it turns out, Ceres’ bright spots may be none of these (and especially not that last one… puh-leeze) — they may be enormous deposits of salt.

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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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Icy Tendrils in Saturn’s E Ring Traced Back to Enceladus

Cassini images of Enceladus in the E ring (top left, upper center) and computer-generated models of the same scenes. Views from 2006 and 2013, respectively. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Cassini images of Enceladus in the E ring (top left, upper center) and computer-generated models of the same scenes. Views from 2006 and 2013, respectively. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

As the ice-encrusted moon Enceladus makes it way along its orbit around Saturn it gets repeatedly squeezed by the giant planet’s gravity, like a frozen stress ball with water-filled insides. This constant squeezing and relaxing generates friction heat in the moon’s crust, which could be responsible for keeping some of its internal water liquid and spraying it out into space from long canyons that cut across its southern pole. And sometimes more ice gets shot out than at other times, forming a trail of long tendrils that stretch into the “E” ring – a hazy, diffuse doughnut around Saturn made from Enceladus’ icy exhaust.

These tendrils had been observed by the Cassini spacecraft since 2006, but only now have they been positively confirmed to be the results of specific geysers on the 318-mile-wide moon.

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