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!
After a brief period of silence (due to its position on the dwarf planet’s night side) NASA’s Dawn spacecraft is now sending back images from orbit around Ceres, revealing amazing details of its surface and giving another look at those mystery “bright spots” that have intrigued scientists since their discovery in 2003.
The animation above shows Ceres’ northern hemisphere as it rotated into the sunlight on April 14. The brightest bright spot can be seen in the crater at right – as Dawn was on approach earlier this year it resolved that spot into two distinct regions.
Scientists still aren’t sure exactly what those are, but soon Dawn will be getting an even better 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.
NASA’s Shuttle era may be over but its robotic era is in full swing. With robots having long performed the bulk of our exploration across the Solar System, on the surface of Mars, and now assisting astronauts in low-Earth orbit, we’re now also on the verge of having robots doing work for us on the Moon, on asteroids, and even augmenting natural human capabilities to levels otherwise unattainable – especially in the alien environments found outside of Earth.
“This is probably one of the most exciting times to be working at NASA,” said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames Research Center. “Regardless of where NASA goes, robots are going to be there. If humans go back to the Moon, or to an asteroid, or Mars, robots are going with them.”
Here’s a raw image of Saturn’s moon Iapetus, looking down on its northern hemisphere from Cassini on March 31, 2015. The moon’s signature two-toned coloration is evident as its bright icy surface is partially coated by dark material, thought to have been ejected from distant neighbor Phoebe.
Iapetus is 914 miles (1,471 km) in diameter, or about as wide as Texas and Louisiana combined. It orbits Saturn at a considerable distance of 2,212,889 miles (3,561,300 km), which is nine times farther than the Moon is from us.
Iapetus’ north pole is located just below and to the left of the centrally-peaked crater south of the brightest region in the image above. (The two prominent craters near image center are Roland and Turpin.)