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PLUTO Up Close and Personal – WOW New Horizons: Nasa releases historic Pluto close-up images

July 14, 2015

New Horizons: Nasa releases historic Pluto close-up images

Pluto –  3 billion miles away\Science & Environment

Pluto surface
A new picture of Pluto’s surface shows evidence of active geology and mountains comparable to the Rockies

Nasa has presented the first images acquired by the New Horizons probe during its historic flyby of Pluto.

Chief scientist Alan Stern said the new images showed evidence of geological activity and mountains in the Pluto system.

The team has also named the prominent heart-shaped region on Pluto after the world’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.

The spacecraft sped past the dwarf planet on Tuesday, grabbing a huge volume of data.

Mission scientist John Spencer told journalists that one image of Pluto’s surface showed a terrain that had been resurfaced by some geological process – such as volcanism – in the last 100 million years.


“We have not found a single impact crater on this image. This means it must be a very young surface,” he said.

This active geology needs some source of heat. This has only been seen on icy moons, where it can be explained by “tidal heating” caused by gravitational interactions with the host planet.

“You do not need tidal heating to power geological heating on icy bodies. That’s a really important discovery we just made this morning,” said Dr Spencer.

Mission scientist Cathy Olkin added: “This exceeds what we came for.”

This same image shows mountains at the edge of the heart-like region that are up to 11,000ft high and which team members compared to North America’s Rocky Mountains.

Charon has a chasm four to six miles deep

John Spencer said the methane and nitrogen ice that coats Pluto’s surface were not strong enough to form mountains, so they were probably composed of Pluto’s water-ice bedrock.

The pictures were sent back to Earth during the course of two data downlinks on Wednesday.

Scientists have named the heart-shaped region Tombaugh Regio, after the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.

The new, close-up image of Charon has revealed a chasm 4-6 miles deep and also further evidence of active resurfacing.

Significantly, all these images are at a much higher resolution than anything we have seen so far.

The mission team has told New Horizons this week to send down only a small fraction of the total data it carries.

Part of the reason is that the probe continues to do science, observing Pluto from its night side.

The intention is to keep looking at it for about two more full rotations, or 12 Earth days.



© Provided by

It’s official: NASA’s New Horizons became the first spacecraft ever to fly by Pluto today, passing within 7,750 miles of the dwarf planet at 7:49 am ET.

This fact was widely celebrated this morning (including on this site), but in reality no one knew whether the probe successfully made it until scientists received a signal this evening. That’s because New Horizons was busy collecting data during the flyby — not transmitting it — and once it did send a signal, the transmission took 4.5 hours to reach Earth.

pluto july 13© Provided by pluto july 13Pluto, as seen by New Horizons the day before the flyby. (NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

New Horizons traveled 3 billion miles to get to Pluto

The small craft that passed by Pluto today was launched back in January 2006 and has since traveled more than 3 billion miles. In 2007, it flew by Jupiter, using the giant planet’s immense gravity to slingshot itself outward.

new horizons location© Provided by new horizons locationNew Horizons’ trajectory through the solar system. (JHU/APL)

But even moving at speeds as high as 50,000 miles per hour, it took nearly a decade to reach Pluto because of a simple fact: It’s incredibly far away. By analogy, if you imagine the Earth to be a basketball, Pluto would be a little larger than a golf ball — and at the same scale, that golf ball would be 50 to 80 miles away.

This distance also means that the craft had to be fairly light (about 1,000 pounds) to get there in a reasonable amount of time, which precluded it from carrying enough fuel to slow down to enter Pluto’s orbit. Consequently, it was moving at about 31,000 miles per hour during the flyby — and traversed the diameter of Pluto in just a few minutes.

New Horizons is about to reveal Pluto for the first time

Until very recently, the best photos we had of Pluto (taken by the Hubble Space Telescope) showed it as a blurry blob:

pluto hubble© Provided by pluto hubble

Pluto, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010. (NASA/ESA/M. Buie) 

New Horizons quickly surpassed the quality of those images during the past few weeks of its approach to Pluto, capturing much sharper images of the dwarf planet and its moons. But even this will be outdone by the photos taken today during the actual flyby, which are projected to be 10 times sharper.

We should see the first of these Wednesday afternoon, and the rest should trickle in over the coming weeks because New Horizons is only capable of transmitting data at a very slow rate.

They should reveal a fascinating new landscape, shedding light on the ice caps and plains scientists have spotted in recent images, as well as features we simply haven’t seen yet.

© Provided by


Pluto (left) and its moon Charon shown in false color, to highlight differences in surface materials. The photo was taken July 13.

Scientists will use all this data to better understand Pluto and its place in the solar system

The spacecraft also collected lots of data on Pluto’s temperature, atmosphere, and interactions with the solar wind (the charged plasma released by the sun), as well as the dwarf planet’s five moons. Combined with the images, they’ll paint a complex portrait of a long-mysterious planet.

The seven scientific instruments aboard the New Horizons craft.© Provided by The seven scientific instruments aboard the New Horizons craft.

The seven scientific instruments aboard the New Horizons craft. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Already, data collected by New Horizons has allowed scientists to more precisely determine the size of the dwarf planet (its diameter is 1,473 miles, slightly larger than previously estimated) and revealed mysterious dark spotsin its southern hemisphere.

One of the reasons scientists want to learn more about Pluto is that it likely formed at the same time as the rest of our solar system, from the same materials. What’s more, it likely formed much closer in to the sun — going through the same early stages of growth as Earth and the other rocky planets — before being flung outward billions of years ago.

All the data collected on its geology, atmosphere, and moons will help scientists refine their ideas about this early era in our planet’s history. “We know that the Earth went through the stage of growth that Pluto stopped at,” Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator, told me in April. “This will help us connect the dots.”

This is the first time in a generation we’ll see a new world

new horizons 3© Provided by new horizons 3


Since the dawn of the space age, we’ve been striving to explore our solar system, sending spacecraft to each of the planets in turn: Venus and Mars in the 1960s, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn in the ’70s, and Uranus and Neptune in the ’80s. These probes showed us entirely new worlds, revealing beautiful moons, rings, atmospheres, and landscapes.

There’s since been a generation-long gap. Many people (myself included) aren’t old enough to remember a moment of such pure exploration, of seeing a planet that no one had seen before. When we get the photos tomorrow, though, we’re once again going to see an entirely new world for the first time.



The closest photo we've taken of Pluto.


This morning, the United States became the first country to reach Pluto — and the first country to explore the entire classical solar system: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

NASA’s New Horizons interplanetary probe has been making its way to Pluto since January 19, 2006, and has been providing the world with the sharpest photos ever seen of our Solar System’s most prominent “dwarf planet.” Today, it made its closest approach to Pluto yet — about 8,000 miles — at around 07:49:57 EDT.

Here’s the photo they took — which, despite traveling at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), took four and a half hours to reach us here on Earth as it crossed the 3 billion miles between here and Pluto:




via NASA We now know that the ground is made up of more ice, and less rock, than originally thought. It truly is a “dirty snowball.”

But there is still so much we don’t know. Why are some patches bright orange and others very dark? Are the dark patches valleys of frozen methane? Is it possible that Pluto’s radioactive core is heating the inside enough to melt the ice, forming liquid oceans beneath the surface? Could it be the home to a race of aliens, as suggested in the 1951 cult film The Man from Planet X?

OK, probably not aliens. But according to scientists interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, the new data collected so far suggest as many new questions as they do answers, and new numbers are pouring in every hour.


With some of the things we’ve been learning, we can get a clearer picture than ever of what it might be like to some day visit that world… If you stood on the surface of Pluto with a friend, trying to guess which point of light in the pitch-black sky was the sun, it would look merely like a fat star: a little larger and much brighter than the others. But a star, nonetheless.
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“Day” and “night” don’t mean a lot on Pluto. The planet rotates every 6.4 Earth days, but because of the weird way it wobbles and spins, the speck of light we call the Sun traces tiny circles in the sky and only “rises” and “sets” once each season over the course of Pluto’s roughly 250 year-long year. On the other hand, Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, is a large looming disc standing dead still overhead. It never moves in the sky while the sun, the stars, and the planet’s other four weirdly-shaped elongated moonstwist and spin in a wacky dance around it.

via Wikipedia

Spring isn’t that much fun on Pluto. In spring, the solid nitrogen and methane ice caps begin to vaporize (or “sublimate” to use the language of chemistry). As the air pressure builds, you might see clouds form in the sky, and might feel wind on your face. It would be a weak wind, since the atmospheric pressure is a tiny fraction of that on Earth. And you wouldn’t enjoy that very much, since it would be made almost entirely of nitrogen and would be about 369 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

You might enjoy the summers on Pluto, relatively speaking at least. You’d be able to hike along the pale orange rocks and dirt, looking down into dark rippling valleys of frozen methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide ice. There is ice underfoot as well, mixed with the dirt and frozen so solid that it hasn’t existed in liquid form for millions of years.

That summer would last about 20 Earth years. After that, the Plutonian autumn would come, refreezing the methane and nitrogen. Perhaps it would appear as beautiful crystal snow falling around you. The atmosphere would become thinner and thinner, and would eventually disappear entirely as Pluto shoots back outward into winter, into the coldest, most distant part of its orbit.

Make sure you stay tuned as the New Horizons craft, if all goes well, delivers a clear picture of one of our most remote and enigmatic neighbors in this planetary system.

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