Blue Skies of Pluto

On July 14, 2015 NASA’s New Horizons probe captured Pluto’s night-side illuminated by sunlight. Ponder blue skies of Pluto – not so different from planet Earth.

Blue sky phenomenon stems from small atmospheric particles scattering sunlight. Earthly particles are nitrogen molecules, on Pluto sootish little particles called tholins do the job. From –

“The term “tholin” was coined by Carl Sagan and Bishun Khare to describe organic substances they obtained in Miller-Urey experiments on gas mixtures akin to atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. On Pluto, tholins form high in the atmosphere where UV sunlight breaks apart nitrogen and methane molecules. The fragments re-combine to form complex macromolecules. These macromolecules continue to combine and grow until they become “tholins.”

Nightside of Earth –

Tholins themselves aren’t blue, rather gray or red particles scattering sunlight. Science believes some of Pluto’s splotchy red surface comes from Tholin particles falling from the atmosphere.

Pluto – Up Close and Personal

Ponder Pluto up close and personal. A 380 kilometer wide portrait, immortalized on July 14, 2015 by New Horizons at a distance of 18,000 kilometers.

Text below taken from earthsky. –

New Horizons snapped the picture looking back at Pluto about 15 minutes after its closest approach on July 14th. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s rugged, icy mountains tower over a vast frozen plain extending to the horizon. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere.

The new pictures provide evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice. There are signs of hazes, evaporation, precipitation, and flowing glaciers similar to the frozen streams on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

New Pluto images wow scientists

Updating Pluto

Curious – ponder how quickly New Horizons Pluto mission evaporated from popular culture. Media hypes cosmic milestones for a day or two, the moment they stop trending, space exploration might try booking a booth at Comic Con. I wonder how many people could differentiate between New Horizons, Rosetta, Ceres…..

New Horizons left Cape Canaveral in January of 2006 – primary destination Pluto, with asteroid hat tips and cursory nod to Jupiter along the way. On July 14, 2015 New Horizons completed its first “fly-by” of Pluto – Pluto’s wonky orbit aside, an average of 6.09 billion kilometers from earth. Within days New Horizons tickled our fancies with thought provoking images of once a planet Pluto.

This week NASA released New Horizon’s finest work, detailed jaw droppers worthy of a last hurrah. Turns out New Horizons is one plucky little probe, delighting mission control with “can do” tenacity (and enough remaining fuel) to forge far beyond wildest dreams. “Nice to meet your acquaintance Pluto, I must be on my way, 2014 MU69 awaits”.

New Horizon’s fuel bonanza sent science to the Hubble Space Telescope. A billion miles beyond Pluto, Hubble identified “icy object” 2014 MU69 as a viable destination. This week NASA announced intent to reach it by 2019 – New Horizons is packing her bags while NASA waits for final funding approval.

Come on now, do the right thing. What’s the harm in another billion miles? Surely New Horizons attitude and lure of the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune count for something.(link to Kuiper Belt below)

While we wait for confirmation – New Horizons latest images of Pluto –

View larger. | Remember the beautiful image of the heart-shaped feature on Pluto? Here it is in closer detail. This image covers an area 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. Image via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

View larger. | Remember the beautiful image of the heart-shaped feature on Pluto? Here it is in closer detail. This image covers an area 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. Scientists call the heart-shaped feature Tombaugh Regio; it’s a smooth, icy plain. Image via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Some regions on Pluto are much darker than others. Scientists aren't sure why.

View larger. | Some regions on Pluto are much darker than others. Scientists aren’t sure why. Image via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Linked below – best picture gallery of New Horizons encounter with Pluto –

Naming Pluto and Charon

New Horizons July 14 rendezvous with Pluto catapulted this once planet to stardom. Not only Pluto, her tidy little moon Charon suddenly registered on global consciousness. What to do with the onslaught of New Horizons imagery? Obviously we draw a map and start naming features.

Naming features on Pluto demands a smidgeon of seriousness. Pluto’s characteristics fall into four categories – space missions and spacecraft; scientists and engineers; historic explorers; and underworld locales, beings and travelers.

A portion of the first preliminary map on Pluto.

Lessor known moon Charon is cut some literary slack. Features on Charon fall into 4 slightly whimsical categories – fictional explores and travelers; fictional origins and destinations; fictional vessels; and exploration artists, authors and directors.

View larger. | Preliminary map of Charon. Images via NASA / JHU-APL / SwRI. New Horizons spacecraft.

Mordor Macular refers to the “covering” over Charon’s north pole, Kubrick Mons the “mountain in a moat” that rises high above the landscape without evidence of any impact crater.

New Horizons Phoned Home

At 8:52 pm eastern time, New Horizons “phoned home”. Jubilation erupted at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory where Mission Control waited anxiously for news. New Horizons wasn’t designed to multi-task – at 11:17 pm July 13 communications ceased for 22 hours to concentrate on collecting data. Spacecraft design didn’t allow for simultaneous observation and communication. Mission “success” couldn’t be considered until the phone rang.

Ponder the magnitude of New Horizons – a miniscule incarnation of mankind’s ingenuity,eclipsing the magnitude of what is possible.  Orbiting a former planet at the edge of our solar system, a cosmic dot we discovered a mere 85 years ago.

First colour image of Pluto and Charon – colours are enhanced representations comprised of images obtained by “Ralph” using 3 separate filters.

This last link is the grandfather of them all – a link to NASA TV and all things Pluto/New Horizons.

Graphic showing New Horizons’ busy schedule before and during the flyby. Credit: NASA

New Horizons Live

Tomorrow morning at 7:49 am EDT, New Horizons will make her historic closest approach to Pluto. Linked below is a live feed from NASA. “Live” being relative in terms of imagery – with a delay of four and a half hours, it will be several days before Pluto is revealed up close and personal.

NASA has scheduled a news conference for 3 pm eastern to reveal New Horizon’s first photographs. Up until now, New Horizons images of Pluto came from LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager). Once New Horizons settles into close orbit, Ralph and Alice get to work. Named after Ralph and Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, Alice sees the ultraviolet spectrum, Ralph in full colour.

New Horizons Nearing Pluto

In less than a week, July 14 dawns with New Horizons orbiting Pluto at 12,500 kilometers. One of New Horizons niftiest capabilities comes from LORRI – Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, a remarkable high definition camera.

Take a few minutes to watch this video from the National Space Society.

This image of Pluto from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was received on July 8. This view is centered roughly on the area that will be seen close-up during New Horizons’ July 14 closest approach. This side of Pluto is dominated by three broad regions of varying brightness. Most prominent are an elongated dark feature at the equator, informally known as “the whale,” and a large heart-shaped bright area measuring some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) across on the right. Above those features is a polar region that is intermediate in brightness. Image credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Image taken on July 7 at a distance of 8 million kilometers by LORRI. When New Horizons reaches closest orbit on July 14, resolution will be 500 times clearer. Of interest are the elongated dark spot (dubbed – the whale) and heart shaped bright spot. This is the same view New Horizons will concentrate efforts on July 14. The “whale” measures 3000 kilometers, the “bright spot”, roughly 1,200 kilometers across.

From –

“The elongated dark area informally known as “the whale,” along the equator on the left side of the map, is one of the darkest regions visible to New Horizons. It measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length.

Directly to the right of the whale’s “head” is the brightest region visible on the planet, which is roughly 990 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. This may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost—perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide—form a bright coating.

Continuing to the right, along the equator, we see the four mysterious dark spots that have so intrigued the world, each of which is hundreds of miles across. Meanwhile, the whale’s “tail,” at the left end of the dark feature, cradles a bright donut-shaped feature about 200 miles (350 kilometers) across. At first glance it resembles circular features seen elsewhere in the solar system, from impact craters to volcanoes. But scientists are holding off on making any interpretation of this and other features on Pluto until more detailed images are in hand.”

Ponder New Horizons, a little probe nine years and five billion kilometers from Earth, traveling at 49,600 Kph., about to settle into orbit 12,500 kilometers above Pluto. If that doesn’t raise your holy crap meter, nothing will.


New Horizons Teaser

On July 14, 2015 the National Space Society (NSS) probe New Horizons will arrive within 12,500 kilometers of Pluto. Launched 9 years and 5 billion kilometers ago, New Horizons is days away from capturing first ever close-ups of Pluto. This week the NSS released  a “teaser” video to celebrate Horizon’s “close encounter”. Watch and wonder.


New Horizons’ First Colour Photo of Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons probe left Earth over 9 years ago.  Where does nine years find Horizons? 4.8 billion Km. from Earth, barely 3 months away from Pluto and able to transmit the first colour photograph of Pluto and its largest  moon Charon.

This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on April 9 Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Still 115 million Km. away, New Horizons first image is being called a “preliminary reconstruction”.  Mark July 14 on your calendar as the anticipated date New Horizons officially enters the “Pluto system” – close enough to capture detailed surface images of areas no wider than a few kilometers, despite traveling at speeds of 50,000 Km/hour.

Discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto’s brief distinction as ninth planet from the Sun fizzled in 2006 with International Astronomical Union rewriting the definition of “planet”. Tiny Pluto, abut half the width of America, has since answered to the name “dwarf planet”. Size isn’t everything – Pluto holds a planetary designation unique in our solar system, that of “binary planet”. Binary because the largest of Pluto’s 5 known moons is so close in size.

Ponder New Horizons – consider a decade of relentless travel across many billion kilometers of space. Keep in mind New Horizons path, science can’t draw a straight line, gas up a probe, send it on a road trip – consider plotting a course through the labyrinth of space, one that depends on gravitational pull of planets and their moons for propulsion.

I was an 8 years old dreamer when we landed on the moon. The world stopped, holding a collective breath to mark science fiction dissolving into science reality. It saddens my inner dreamer to ask how many 8 year old children today even care about remarkable space missions. Fantastic accomplishment might be commonplace these days, that doesn’t make them ordinary. New Horizons is an extraordinary realization of science. Take a moment to grasp the enormity of mankind’s progress.