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.
The 72-mile (116-km) -wide crater Adedin is seen at an oblique angle in this mosaic made from images acquired by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. The angle highlights the crater’s central peak complex which surrounds a shallow depression that could have a volcanic origin, as well as fine cracks in the floor of its basin and a slumped and terraced section of its far wall. The crater was named after the Bangladeshi painter Zainul Abedin (1914-1976).
And I suggest you enjoy it – it will be one of the last images we see from MESSENGER!
As the midsummer Sun beats down on the southern mountains of Mars, bringing daytime temperatures soaring up to a balmy 25ºC (77ºF), some of their slopes become darkened with long, rusty stains that may be the result of water seeping out from just below the surface.
The image above, captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Feb. 20, shows mountain peaks within the 150-km (93-mile) -wide Hale Crater. Made from data acquired in visible and near infrared wavelengths the long stains are very evident, running down steep slopes below the rocky cliffs… but the process that’s responsible for them has yet to be confirmed.
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!)
Read the rest of this entry
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.