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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These days if you look toward the west after sunset you’ll see a bright star that’s the first to appear in the sky – except it’s not a star at all but our neighboring planet, Venus. Covered in a dense layer of thick clouds, Venus not only reflects a lot of sunlight but also keeps its surface well concealed from visible-light observations. But with the capabilities of powerful ground-based radar observatories, scientists have been able to make global maps of Venus from right here on Earth… no rockets necessary!
These days the world is looking in awe at the incredible images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. But it took Rosetta over ten years to arrive at the comet, during which time it got some great views of other worlds in our Solar System as well: Earth (a couple of times), the asteroids Lutetia and 2867 Steins, and, on this day in 2007, Mars!
The image above was captured by the Philae lander riding aboard Rosetta as the two spacecraft passed just 1,000 km (621 miles) over Mars on Feb. 24-25, 2007. The image shows one of Rosetta’s 14-meter (50-foot) -long solar panels with the surface of Mars below, showing the Mawrth Vallis region in the planet’s northern lowlands.
You may be looking at the faces of future Martians. (*Although that’s looking more and more unlikely – see below.)
The video above, released Feb. 15, shows the results of the latest round of selections for the MarsOne mission: to establish living conditions on Mars and, eventually, send 24 individuals who will become the first permanent human residents on another planet.
(Note: being selected for MarsOne does not include a return ticket.)
If any of you remember this, back in Dec. 2010 Japan’s Venus Climate Orbiter spacecraft AKATSUKI (or Planet-C), after a five and a half month journey through space, failed to enter orbit around Venus due to a faulty thruster nozzle. It sailed right past the cloud-covered planet, going into orbit around the Sun. Fortunately, JAXA mission engineers were able to determine the cause of the problem and come up with some work-arounds for a second attempt when the spacecraft is aligned with Venus later this year.
While we have been getting most of our daily images of Mars from NASA’s Curiosity rover over the past couple of years, we shouldn’t forget that there’s still another rover keeping busy on the Red Planet: Opportunity, one of the twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER-B), still exploring after 11 years!
To commemorate Opportunity’s upcoming landing anniversary on January 25, the MER team has released a panorama taken from the rover’s vantage point atop “Cape Tribulation,” part of the rim of the 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater. Made of multiple images acquired on Jan. 6, 2015 – mission sol 3,894! – with the rover’s Pancam instrument (that is, its “eyes”) the image is presented in approximate true-color of what the scene would look like if we were standing there.
See the full panorama image below: