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.
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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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!
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!
Three enormous volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io were witnessed by scientists last year using the Keck II and Gemini telescopes in Hawaii. The only other confirmed volcanically-active world in the solar system besides Earth, Io is constantly being resurfaced by eruptions and lava flows, due to internal heat and pressures caused by tidal stresses as a result of its elliptical orbit around Jupiter. These recent outbursts were exceptionally powerful, sending huge amounts of incredibly hot molten material out into space and likely coating a large area on its surface as well.
“We typically expect one huge outburst every one or two years, and they’re usually not this bright,” said Imke de Pater, professor and chair of astronomy at UC Berkeley and lead author of a paper describing the 2013 eruptions. “Here we had three extremely bright outbursts, which suggest that if we looked more frequently we might see many more of them on Io.”
Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? All — or none — of the above?
Pluto has been a topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930, and then a topic of controversy after the IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. While conversations continue over Pluto’s planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at the Pluto Science Conference in July 2013. See if you can figure out what it is in the video above! (Hint: it’s not difficult.)
NASA’s New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the planetary frontier by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto in July 2015. Read more about the mission here.