Hold On To Your Jaw. Pluto Extreme Close Up Best Yet

This mosaic of Pluto's surface was created from images taken by the New Horizons probe just 23 minutes before its closest approach. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The New Horizons mission, which its conducted its historic flyby on July 14th, 2015, has yielded a wealth of scientific data about Pluto. This has included discoveries about Pluto’s size, its mountainous regions, its floating ice hills, and (more recently) how the dwarf planet interacts with solar wind – a discovery which showed that Pluto is actually more planet-like than previously thought.

But beyond revelations about the planet’s size, geography and surface features, it has also provided the most breathtaking, clear, and inspiring images of Pluto and its moons to date. And with this latest release of images taken by the New Horizon‘s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), people here on Earth are being treated to be the best close-up of Pluto yet.

These images, which were taken while the New Horizon’s probe was still 15,850 km (9,850 mi) away from Pluto (just 23 minutes before it made its closest approach), extend across the hemisphere that the probe was facing as it flew past. It shows features ranging from the cratered northern uplands and the mountainous regions in Voyager Terra before slicing through the flatlands of “Pluto’s Heart” – aka. Tombaugh Regio – and ending up in another stretch of rugged highlands.

The width of the strip varies as the images pass from north to south, from more than 90 km (55 mi) across at the northern end to about 75 km (45 mi) at its southern point. The perspective also changes, with the view appearing virtually horizontal at the northern end and then shifting to an almost top-down view onto the surface by the end.

The crystal clear photographs that make up the mosaic – which have a resolution of about 80 meters (260 feet) per pixel – offer the most detailed view of Pluto’s surface ever. With this kind of clarity, NASA scientists are able to discern features that were never before visible, and learn things about the kinds of geological processes which formed them.

This includes the chaotic nature of the mountains in the northern hemisphere, and the varied nature of the icy nitrogen plains across Tombaugh Regio – which go from being cellular, to non-cellular, to a cross-bedding pattern. These features are a further indication that Pluto’s surface is the product of a combination of geological forces, such as cryovolcanism, sublimation, geological activity, convection between water and nitrogen ice, and interaction between the surface and atmosphere.

Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and the Associate Vice President of Research and Development at the Southwest Research Institute, was especially impressed with this latest find. As he told Universe Today via email:

“This new high resolution image mosaic is the complete highest resolution strip of images New Horizons obtained, and its both eye candy gorgeous and scientifically rich. Think about it— one flyby and we have this mosaic, plus so much more; no dataset like this existed on Mars until we’d flown half a dozen missions there!”

The most distant flyby in the history of space exploration, and yet we’ve obtained more from this one mission than multiple flybys were able to provide from one of Earth’s closest neighbors. Fascinating! And what’s more, new information is expected to be coming from the New Horizons probe until this coming October. To top it off, our scientists are still not finished analyzing all the information the mission collected during its flyby.

The full-resolution image can be viewed here, and be sure to enjoy this NASA video of the mosaic:

https://youtu.be/NEdvyrKokX4

Further Reading: NASA

The post Hold On To Your Jaw. Pluto Extreme Close Up Best Yet appeared first on Universe Today.

Take A Virtual Reality Tour Of Pluto

With a new app provided by the NY Times, viewers can explore distant Pluto  using only a smartphone or a virtual reality viewer. Credit: New York Times

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons probe made history as it passed within 12,500 km (7,800 mi) of Pluto, thus making it the first spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet up close. And since this historic flyby, scientists and the astronomy enthusiasts here at Earth have been treated to an unending stream of breathtaking images and scientific discoveries about this distant world.

And thanks to the New York Times and the Universities Space Research Association‘s Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas, it is now possible to take a virtual reality tour of Pluto. Using the data obtained by the New Horizon’s instruments, users will be able to experience what it is like to explore the planet using their smartphone or computer, or in 3D using a VR headset.

The seven-minute film, titled “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart“, which is narrated by science writer Dennis Overbye of the New York Times – shows viewers what it was like to approach the dwarf planet from the point of the view of the New Horizon’s probe. Upon arrival, they are then able to explore Pluto’s surface, taking in 360 degree views of its icy mountains, heart-shaped plains, and largest moon, Charon.

https://youtu.be/jIxQXGTl_mo

This represents the most detailed and clear look at Pluto to date. A few decades ago, the few maps of Pluto we had were the result of close observations that measured changes in the planet’s total average brightness as it was eclipsed by its largest moon, Charon. Computer processing yielded brightness maps, which were very basic by modern standards.

In the early 2000s, images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope were processed in order to create a more comprehensive view. Though the images were rather undetailed, they offered a much higher resolution view than the previous maps, allowing certain features – like Pluto’s large bright spots and the dwarf planet’s polar regions – to be resolved for the first time.

However, with the arrival of the New Horizons mission, human beings have been finally treated to a close-up view of Pluto and its surface.  This included Pluto’s now-famous heart-shaped plains, which were captured by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) while it was still several days away from making its closest approach.

This was then followed-up by very clear images of its surface features and atmosphere, which revealed floating ice hills, mountains and icy flow plains, and surface clouds composed of methane and tholins. From all of these images, we now know what the surface of this distant world looks like with precision. All of this has allowed scientists here at Earth to reconstruct, in stunning detail, what it would be like to travel to Pluto and stand on its surface.

Amazingly, only half of New Horizon’s images and measurements have been processed so far. And with fresh data expected to arrive until this coming October, we can expect that scientists will be working hard for many years to analyze it all. One can only imagine what else they will learn about this mysterious world. And one can only hope that any news findings will be uploaded to the app (and those like it)!

The VR app can be downloaded at the New York Times VR website, and is available for both Android and Apple devices. It can also be viewed using headset’s like Google Cardboard, a smartphone, and a modified version exists for computer browsers.

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“X” Marks the Spot of Convective Churning on Hot Pluto

“X” marks the spot in this image transmitted to Earth on Dec. 24, 2015 from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from NASA’s New Horizons’ showing the highest-resolution swath of Pluto at the center of Sputnik Planum, the informally named plain that forms the left side of Pluto’s “heart.”  The pattern of polygonal cells stems from the slow thermal convection of the nitrogen-dominated ices.  Also visible is a a dirty block of water ice “floating” in denser solid nitrogen.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“X” marks the spot that’s illustrative of “convective churning” resulting from subsurface planetary heating, as seen in a fascinating new super high resolution image received from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2015. Its situated at the very center of the left ventricle of Pluto’s huge “heart” – an icy flow plain that’s informally named “Sputnik Planum.”

The “X” feature – see image above – is located in an area of intersecting cells, shaped like polygons, on the plains of “Sputnik Planum” which are mostly comprised of frozen nitrogen ices.

So what’s really piqued the interest of scientists leading the New Horizons mission, is that the “X” feature is a residue of “convective churning” or internal heating and it has changed over time.

Indeed the “X” is found at what appears to be the melted remnants of a quadruple junction of the polygonal or cellular patterns, that dominate Sputnik Planum. And it’s not tiny!

“This part of Pluto is acting like a lava lamp,” said William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, from Washington University in St. Louis, “if you can imagine a lava lamp as wide as, and even deeper than, the Hudson Bay.”

The polygonal cell features are believed to have arisen over time from the slow thermal convection of the icy plains that are composed of a slushy mixture of mostly nitrogen ices along with some water ice mixed in.

The image was taken by the probes telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a distance of approximately 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers), about 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto.

Scientists currently interpret the dark patch near the top of the image to be a dirty water “iceberg” that’s “floating in denser solid nitrogen, and which has been dragged to the edge of a convection cell.” Also visible are thousands of surface pits arising from sublimation.

New Horizons made history when it became Earth’s first emissary to hurtle past the small planet on July 14, 2015.

Pluto – also now known as the ‘Other Red Planet’ – was the last unexplored planet in our solar system.

The LORRI image nearly completes a mosaic of New Horizons’ highest-resolution images taken of Pluto along a swath at the center of Sputnik Planum. They have a resolution of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel – “revealing features smaller than half a city block on Pluto’s surface,” according to the team in a NASA statement.

The newly released images, from NASA and the New Horizons team, illustrate the polygonal or cellular pattern of the plains, which “are thought to result from the convective churning of a deep layer of solid, but mobile, nitrogen ice.”
The LORRI images also reveal numerous, active triple junctions spread across the terrain.

Based on the data returned thus far, researcher say “the pattern of the cells stems from the slow thermal convection of the nitrogen-dominated ices that fill Sputnik Planum.”

“Computer models by the New Horizons team show that these blobs of overturning solid nitrogen can slowly evolve and merge over millions of years.”

The nitrogen ices rise and sink over time forming ridges along the edges of the polygonal cells that change with time due to the subsurface heating.

The polygons range in width from to 25 miles (16 to 40 kilometers). They are somewhat dome-like and rise slightly about 100 yards (100 meters) in the center.

Researchers say Sputnik Planum itself is likely several miles or kilometers deep in some places and the icy plains are a few miles lower that the surrounding areas on Pluto.

“The solid nitrogen is warmed at depth by Pluto’s modest internal heat, becomes buoyant and rises up in great blobs, and then cools off and sinks again to renew the cycle.”

The “Sputnik Planum” region dominates the left side of Pluto’s “heart-shape” feature informally dubbed “Tombaugh Regio.”

So far New Horizon has transmitted back only about 20 percent of the data gathered, according to mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

“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,” says Stern.

“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.”

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap for a long time to come.

During New Horizons flyby on July 14, 2015, it discovered that Pluto is the biggest object in the outer solar system and thus the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt.”

The Kuiper Belt comprises the third and outermost region of worlds in our solar system.

New Horizons remains on target to fly by a second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019 – tentatively named PT1, for Potential Target 1. It is much smaller than Pluto and was recently selected based on images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The post “X” Marks the Spot of Convective Churning on Hot Pluto appeared first on Universe Today.

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New Horizons Sights Tiny Pluto Moon As Spacecraft Races Toward Dwarf Planet

Here’s Hydra! The New Horizons team spotted the tiny moon of Pluto in July, about six months ahead of when they expected to. You can check it out in the images below. The find is exciting in itself, but it also bodes well for the spacecraft’s search for orbital debris to prepare for its close […]