Thursday, July 16, 2015

They're Here! First Close-Ups of Pluto, Moons Make it Back to Earth



After the better part of a day's wait, the first close-up pictures of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, have finally made it back to Earth, revealing to scientists and the public alike active, dynamic worlds that were anything but what was realistically expected. So, what has New Horizons found?

On Pluto, New Horizons revealed geology that very few scientists had the audacity to expect. Pluto is a member of the Kuiper Belt, which is made up of mostly comets and a few larger bodies, such as Pluto. Comets, at least on the surface, are known qualities, characterized by battered surfaces of mostly ice and some rock. Going into the mission, many expected Pluto to be like a comet, albeit much, much larger.

How were the experts wrong!

The first close-ups of Pluto snapped by New Horizons have revealed a world of mountains (over 10,000 feet tall), valleys, plains, and even what seems to be a polar ice cap. As exciting as these features are, it's the complete absence of craters in some areas that really has scientists talking. Pluto and the rest of the solar system formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago. In the early history of the solar system, there was far more debris flying around than now, most of which was eventually absorbed into the still-forming planets. Evidence for these objects? Just train a pair of moderately-powerful binoculars on the Moon to reveal all of its craters: a 4.5 billion year record of violent impacts. The absence of craters on some areas of Pluto can only mean one thing: the dwarf planet's surface is much newer than the solar system, with many scientists offering a 100 million year age at most, meaning that Pluto was geologically active at some point in its recent (in geological terms) past. The mechanisms that caused this resurfacing will undoubtedly occupy scientists for years, if not decades to come as, unlike geologically active moons in the outer solar system, Pluto has no giant parent planet tugging on it to warm its interior.

Then there's Charon, Pluto's largest Moon.



Like Pluto, Charon displays a wide variety of geological features, evidence of recent geologic activity, and two massive canyons, the larger of which is over 600 miles long and over 6 miles deep. Another feature that is sure to spark investigation is the color contrasts visible on both Pluto and Charon and the possible causes for them.

Needless to say, even with just these first few pictures, mission scientists have already have a lot to talk about and routes of study to pursue. With the data still coming back (NASA estimates it will take 16 months to get all the data captured during the last week back to Earth), who knows what further surprises will await us Earthlings courtesy of the former 9th planet over 3 billion miles distant.

Stay tuned!


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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New Horizons Survives Pluto Flyby, Earth Awaits First Close Encounter Pictures

Late last night, specifically at 8:52pm EDT, anxious mission controllers at NASA finally got the long-awaited radio signal confirming that New Horizons had survived its encounter with Pluto. The radio contact blackout was planned in order for the probe to its science as it passed by the former 9th planet. For NASA, this was the culmination of a 9-year flight filled with anxiety and danger. 

Traveling 3+ billion miles without mishap is no easy feat. In fact, just the act of getting off the ground is dangerous enough as a rocket launch is really no more than a controlled explosion. Once in space and traveling thousands of miles per hour, even a piece of space debris the size of a grain of rice hitting the probe at the right spot could destroy its ability to function. Those two dangers known, there was another that presented itself well after New Horizons was already into its flight: newly discovered Moons circling Pluto, which served to point out that the Kuiper Belt, in which Pluto resides, is full of potential dangers in the form of space debris.

Needless to say, mission control was holding its collective breath as close approach to Pluto became a matter of days, hours, and finally minutes.

Now, with the probe known to be alive and well, all we have to collectively do is wait for the first close pass pictures to make it back to Earth, which will take some time as not only is Pluto very distant from us, but data transmission rates are only about 2,000 bits (250 bytes) per second. For comparison, dial-up Internet access (remember that?) will transmit about 50 kilobytes per second (or about 200 times faster than the data rate from Pluto) and the slowest broadband Internet service available today is about 2 megabytes per seconds of data (or about 8000 times faster than the data rate from Pluto). End result: if you think your bandwidth stinks, NASA's download rate from Pluto is much, much worse meaning that it will take roughly the next 16 months to transmit all the data New Horizons captured during the past week, so don't expect the mission to drop out of the headlines anytime soon!



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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New Horizons Flys by Pluto, Latest Images Most Detailed Yet

NASA's New Horizons Pluto space probe has just completed its historic flyby of Pluto, which was the 9th planet at the time of launch. While the first pictures at closest approach are not expected until tomorrow, NASA has released images from yesterday, which meant that New Horizons was, at the time, within 1 day of closest approach.


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Monday, July 13, 2015

New Horizons 1 Day From Pluto Flyby, First Surface Details Revealed on Camera (Pictures)


NASA's New Horizons mission is set to fly past Pluto in roughly 24 hours. Now within a million miles of the former 9th planet, scientists and the public are getting an eye full thanks to New Horizons' cameras, which are now capturing the first clear details of the former planet's surface.

Released yesterday, the latest images show the first clear details of surface features on Pluto and also its largest moon, Charon. As New Horizons approached Pluto and started beaming back images, the first resemblance of a surface began to appear on camera. Initially appearing as nothing more than splotches of color variation, these surface details have now emerged to appear as possible cliffs, valleys, mountains, and impact craters. Though still a million miles distant (close pass will be 30,800 miles) and anything but high-definition, these pictures have allowed scientists to get their first clear look at Pluto's surface and finally begin to narrow down the possibilities for what the distant world really looks like and the forces that shape it. 



Going into the mission, scientists had three competing ideas of what Pluto's surface would look like. The first idea is a dynamic world like Neptune's largest moon, Triton, which features ice geysers and a surface coated with varying shades of whites to grays thanks to the fact that the geysers, once they get high enough, become black thanks to trace amounts of carbon. It is this carbon-contaminated snow/ice that then falls back to the surface, thus giving Triton its anything but snow-white appearance.

The next idea of what Pluto may look like is one of a snow world. Why? Pluto is known to have an atmosphere, which is theorized to form when it gets to be summer and then freeze and fall back to the surface when it cools in fall/winter. The idea is that the frozen atmosphere would coat the mini world's surface, thus smoothing out many of surface features.

The third idea is basically idea two, sans surface-coating frozen atmosphere (this theory assumes that the atmosphere is too thin to amount to anything when it condenses and falls back to the surface). Result: a battered, frozen world bearing all of the impact craters incurred during its 4.5 billion year existence.

So far, theories 1 and 3 seem to be most likely as, thanks to the most recent images that show great color variation on the surface and fine details that would rule out the possibility of thick 'atmospheric snow.'

Needless to say, stay tuned as the hours progress as better and better pictures are sure to come beaming back to Earth, with the best coming Wednesday, the day pictures from close approach finally make it back to Earth.


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Sunday, July 12, 2015

What is a Planet? Upcoming New Horizons Pluto Flyby Resurrects Hot Debate, Old Passions

In just two days, NASA's New Horizons space probe will fly past Pluto, which was the 9th and final planet in the solar system at the mission's launch. Now, 9 years and over 3 billion miles later, Pluto has long since been demoted to the status of 'dwarf planet.' That aside, scientists and the public are buzzing over the mission, which has, to the surprise of none, re-ignited the debate over Pluto's planetary status.

It was August 24, 2006 when our solar system lost one of its own. It was on this date that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) voted on a new definition of the word 'planet.' By changing what makes a planet a planet, the IAU instantly stripped the outermost planet of the solar system, Pluto, of its planet status,demoting it to a 'dwarf planet' instead. For Pluto, the road to demotion was a long time coming.

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, who had yet to earn a college degree at this point. In the decades since the discovery of Uranus, astronomers noticed that its orbit seemed to exhibit some unexpected eccentricities. This observation led to the discovery of Neptune in 1846 and, following this logic, the implication was that there was an even more distant planet tugging on Neptune after it, too, seemed to exhibit orbital oddities.
So, the search was on for the mysterious 9th planet, which was found by Tombaugh on February 18, 1930.
Initially, astronomers had a very hard time determining the size of Pluto as it was so far away and the tools available at the time of discovery were primitive by today's standards when it came to their planet-measuring capabilities. However, as time progressed, Pluto only seemed to get smaller and smaller, eventually reaching the point where it was estimated to be smaller than many of the moons in the solar system, including our own. By 1978 and the discovery of its first known moon, Charon, Pluto was known to be only about 1/500th the mass of Earth, far from the 1 Earth mass first suggested shortly after discovery. By virtue of its size alone, some scientists started to question whether Pluto deserved to be called a planet at all.
The next blow for Pluto came with the advent of digital imaging technology. For astronomers, digital CCD chips, which came into mass use in the 1990s, were far more sensitive than film and could reveal much greater details. With the advances in imaging technology, many objects at Pluto's distance from the Sun were found. Now, with the fact known that Pluto was not unique at all, scientists were faced with a dilemma: start adding more planets to the solar system (and thus overwhelm the mind of schoolchildren the world over) or reconsider the definition of a planet.
As history shows, the astronomers took the latter option.

The final blow to Pluto's status as a planet came on July 29, 2005, when the existence of Eris, a body 3 times more distant but nearly 30% more massive than Pluto was confirmed. Eris was discovered by astronomer Mike Brown, who, in a TV interview, recalled calling his wife immediately after the discovery to announce that he had discovered the 10
th planet. Unfortunately for Brown, he would not enter the Pantheon of astronomers occupied by the other planet finders: Tombaugh, Gallee, and Herschel. Instead, Brown's 'planet' was merely the largest in a series of Trans-Neptunian objects discovered since the advent of digital imaging, which is far more adept at low-light photography than film. As a result, being larger than Pluto but now known as nothing unique, Brown's planet, temporarily named Xena (but since named Eris), would never gain planetary status and, despite being larger than Pluto, would retain its status as a newly-dubbed 'dwarf planet' while Pluto would continue to be defined as the 9th planet.


It was because of this problem, how could the larger of two distant bodies be considered not a planet while the smaller one was a planet, that the scientific community began to reassess the definition of the word 'planet.'


Result: on August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Anion (IAU) came up with the following definition of the word 'planet,' which reads: “a body that circles the sun without being some other object's satellite, is large enough to be rounded by its own gravity (but not so big that it begins to undergo nuclear fusion, like a star) and has "cleared its neighborhood of other orbiting bodies.” Obviously, Pluto met the first 2 conditions (it orbits the Sun and nothing else, it is round), but not the third, as it has failed to clear its neighborhood thanks to the fact that its moon, Charon, is not a true moon in that Charon does not orbit Pluto, but both bodies orbit a point in space between them where their gravitational fields meet, making for more of 
a double planet system than a planet-moon one.
For many people, both scientists and especially members of the public, the demotion of Pluto was a tough pill to swallow as most everyone alive (save the people 77+ years of age) grew up on the notion of 9, not 8, planets. In fact, there was even a massive 'save Pluto' petition being circulated online, but to no avail as the IAU refused to budge on this question of what defines a planet.


So, regardless of what you call it, Pluto is due for a visitor in two days, so stay tuned!


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Saturday, July 11, 2015

New Horizons Enters Pluto's Gravitational Field, NASA Releases New Pictures

Yesterday, it was announced that NASA's New Horizons space probe had entered Pluto's neighborhood, which could be better defined in layman's terms as Pluto's gravitational field. Incidentally, it is the failure to 'clear' its neighborhood that led Pluto to lose its planet status in 2006, only a few months after New Horizons was launched to what was, at the time, the final planet in the solar system.

Now, come July 11, New Horizons is roughly 3 days from its meet-up with Pluto, and the pictures are generating quite the buzz here on Earth, roughly 3 billion miles distant.



Images of Pluto taken during the past two days.
At close pass of about 8,000 miles, New Horizon's cameras will be revealing details down to about 100 yards per pixel. As of yesterday, with the probe still about 3 million miles from its target, the images are only resolved down to about 15 miles per pixel. 

Hubble's best effort.

While anything but crystal-clear, these pictures are still, far and away, the most detailed images of the distant world yet seen by human eyes. Before New Horizons, we had to rely on fuzzy pictures from the Hubble telescope to have even the faintest idea of what Pluto looked like. Bottom line: the images only gave scientists fodder for theory and no hard facts whatsoever. Now, in just 3 days, Earth will have its first up-close look at what was, at the time of mission launch, the final planet from the Sun.

Needless to say, these are exciting times for us interested in space exploration!


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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

1 Week Until Close-Ups of Pluto, 26 Years Since Voyager 2's Meeting With Neptune

One week from today, we here on Earth will get our first up-close look at Pluto, should all things go according to plan for NASA's New Horizons mission, which is set to fly by the former 9th planet in 6 days (data will take hours to reach Earth, hence the 7 days until the first images).

As of now, thanks to a computer glitch this past weekend that probably triggered many panic attacks in mission control, the most recent images of Pluto date to last Friday, July 3. Here's one of those pictures.



For a historical perspective, 1989, 26 years ago, was the last time a space probe visited a planet for the first time (Pluto was still a planet when New Horizons launched and many still consider Pluto a planet regardless of the IAU's definition of 'planet') when Voyager 2 flew by Neptune. For some fun, here's a look back at that year, the most recent time a planet was visited for the first time . . .

1989 was a monumental year in human geopolitical history for one reason: the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe shook off the yoke imposed by the Soviet Union. For this reason alone, 1989 will be remembered by historians centuries in the future. Starting in Poland, a wave of revolutions in Eastern Europe saw these countries, formerly behind the 'Iron Curtain' and under the oppressive rule of communist Russia, break free from their Soviet overlords and transform into modern, free democracies. By the end of the year, these Eastern Bloc nations would truly be independent nations once again and Soviet Russia, its communist system under considerable strain, would find itself standing alone against the irreversible tide of freedom. Within two years, communism in Russia would be dead.
That aside, here's more from the news in 1989:

Politics:
George HW Bush succeeds Ronald Reagan as the 41st president
Tienanmen Square Massacre
Russia pulls last troops out of Afghanistan
Denmark becomes the first nation to legalize same-sex civil unions
The last 2 holdout WWII Japanese soldiers surrender
The United States invades Panama

Nature:
Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska
Hurricane Hugo, the costliest hurricane to date
7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake in California

Science/Technology:
Bob Ballard finds the wreck of the German battleship Bismarck
Robert Morris becomes the first person prosecuted for a cyber crime
1st commercial dial-up Internet service in the United States
NASA launches Galileo to Jupiter, Magellan to Venus
First mention of 'cold fusion'
First text message
Hepatitis C visus first identified

Sports:
Pete Rose banned from baseball
Ryder Cup ends in a tie
Riverside International Raceway closes

Pop Culture:
Sega Genesis released in the United States
Official Soviet news agency reports landing of UFO
The Simpsons airs its first episode
Disney releases the Little Mermaid
Doctor Who ends its original TV run of 26 years

Births:
Taylor Swift
Daniel Radcliffe
Joe Jonas
Michelle Wie

Deaths:
Lucille Ball
Salvador Dali
Emperor Hirohito
Bette Davis
Sugar Ray Robinson
Laurence Olivier

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