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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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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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Water Water Everywhere

Earth isn't the only planet with water – we just need to know where to look.

Earth isn’t the only planet with water – we just need to know where to look.

Everyone knows that Earth is a “water-world,” with oceans covering 71% of its surface and at least as much contained within our planet’s mantle deep below its crust. But there’s also liquid water to be found elsewhere in the Solar System: on Mars, on the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, and also on the icy moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune.

NASA is on the hunt for this water, for the main reason that it’s the key ingredient for the evolution of Earth-type life. Where liquid water exists, if there are organic molecules and energy sources as well then the stage is set for life having evolved independently of Earth. And if we can find that that’s the case somewhere, anywhere else in the Solar System, then that would be a huge – no, make that giant – step toward answering the Big Question: are we alone in the Universe?

Today NASA scientists held a conference about the search for oceans beyond Earth, and how we are currently and plan to find out where and how much is (or even was) out there. An infographic accompanied the press materials released.

“What we’re finding out is that the Solar System really is a soggy place.”

– Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director

Check out the full infographic below, along with a video of the conference.

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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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Voyager’s Valentine Turns 25 Today

If you’re in love with space exploration then you’ll fall for this: it’s the picture of Earth taken from the Voyager 1 spacecraft after it passed the orbit of Pluto in 1990. That image of our planet from almost 4 billion miles away inspired Carl Sagan to write his famous “Pale Blue Dot” passage, and reminds us that we are all just floating on “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This is from a post I originally published in 2010. I’ll keep trotting it out until it’s not cool anymore. (Which I don’t think will ever happen.)

Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune as seen by Voyager 1 in 1990 (Credit: NASA)

On February 14, 1990, after nearly 13 years of traveling the solar system, the Voyager 1 spacecraft passed the orbit of Pluto and turned its camera around to take a series of photos of the planets. The image above shows those photos, isolated from the original series and are left to right, top to bottom: Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

From that distance, over 4 billion miles from the Sun, the planets each appear as little more than a bright dot against the vastness of interplanetary space.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

– Carl Sagan

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