Now over four months after the historic and long-awaited flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, planetary scientists have had a steady stream of unprecedented data arriving on Earth from the outwardly-speeding spacecraft. We’ve learned more about Pluto in the past few months than we had over the decades before and the information is still being analyzed — and is still coming. This surprising little world and its strange family of mismatched moons, 33 times farther from the Sun than us, has become in the latter half of 2015 the scientific “star of the Solar System.” (Take that all you can’t-be-a-planet folks!)
“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the Solar System. Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”
– Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, SwRI
On Wed. Oct. 28 Cassini performed its lowest-altitude dive yet through the icy plumes of Enceladus, coming just 30 miles from the moon’s surface — that’s only about 6 times higher than a commercial airliner at cruising altitude. But, traveling over 19,000 mph relative to Enceladus (which is 38 times faster than a jet plane!) the pass was over in just a few seconds. Still, Cassini managed to capture some images before, during, and after closest approach — and they’ve arrived on Earth today.
Here are some of the raw images from the E-21 flyby. These have not been validated or made into official releases by NASA or the Cassini imaging team yet, but they are a nice teaser of what we might expect once they are. (And, of course, the science performed during the flyby has yet to be revealed.) So pics only for now!
For decades, far-off Pluto and its moons were just a collection of bright spots in even our most powerful telescopes. Now the dwarf planet and its family of five moons has been revealed in intimate detail with the long-awaited flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft.
Last week the “family portrait” of the Pluto system was made complete when our best close-up arrived of Kerberos, a tiny 7-mile-wide moon that nobody even knew about until 2011. And surprise: it looks like a contact binary!
Yes, it’s true: a rather not-so-tiny near-Earth
asteroid SKULL-SHAPED ZOMBIE COMET (see below) 2015 TB145 will make a relatively close pass by our dear planet Earth on October 31, aka Halloween — the day when certain beliefs profess that the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest, allowing spiritual and even physical interaction to occur between both.
Of course there is no scientific evidence that the latter is at all true but it makes for good scary stories around the light of a campfire. And as the first-world campfires of today are the stark lights of computer monitors and smartphone screens, some are trying to weave scary stories about the passing of this asteroid as well. Should you be afraid? Certainly not. (But there is a cautionary tale to be told.)
It’s been a while since I last made one of these: it’s an animation comprising 27 images acquired by Cassini in various color channels on October 11, 2015. It shows Saturn’s second-largest moon Rhea passing in front of the smaller and more distant* Dione, both partially illuminated by sunlight. I cleaned up some image artifacts from each frame and adjusted the levels to make the blacks black and not banded, like is often found in images like these. I also added a bit of a glow to the moons, to enhance the sense of light (and bring out some of the detail in the darker areas.)
There’s nothing particularly scientific here, just an enjoyment of the endless and ongoing dance of the spheres!
Check out an older moon animation of Rhea here.
*Dione is more distant from the Cassini spacecraft in these views; it’s actually closer to Saturn in its orbit than Rhea.