Tag Archives: pluto

NASA Visualization of Solar Winds Reaching The Solar System’s Depths

Solar winds stream through the vacuum of space at an awesome 400 kilometers per second (over one million miles per hour). To help understand the effect of these gusts on the space environment, NASA developed this hypnoticvisualization.

The sun is continually producingsolar winds, although they can vary in strength, temperatureand consistency. They consist of charged particles of electrons and protons that are thrustforward by the thermal energy and magnetic fields of the Suns atmosphere. The effect of the Aurora Borealis (or the Northern Lights) is the result of solar winds as they hit the Earths atmosphere. The swirling shape of the winds you see in the video comes from the rotation of the Sun.

Scientists at NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, made this visualizationusing data fromNew Horizons and models of solar winds.As you can see by the little date and clock on the bottom right, these solar winds can take months and months to reach Pluto despite their stunning speeds.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/nasa-visualization-solar-winds-reaching-solar-systems-depths

Stunning New Vista Of Pluto Reveals Features Hidden In Darkness

Its that time of the week again:NASA has released new images and data on Pluto and its moon Charon from the New Horizons spacecraft, and the latest batch doesnt disappoint.

This week, a stunning new image of Pluto backlit by the Sun has been revealed. While we had seen a similar oneof the sunlit crescent before, this latest image reveals the entire dwarf planet in all its glory. The wide-angle image was taken 15 minutes after New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015.

The most amazing thing about this image is not the glorious vista on the right hand side, though. No, it is what is on the left, on the night side of Pluto. If you look at the horizon there, you can see the silhouetted profiles of features on the surface, possibly mountains or raised plateaus.

This side was in permanent darkness when New Horizons flew past. With no other mission to Pluto in the works, this is likely one of the clearest views youll ever see of the features on this side of the dwarf planet, at least for the foreseeable future. Neat.

Some of the features on the night side of Pluto. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Over on the sunlit side, you can see the informally named Sputnik Planum, the icy smooth expanse seen just below middle-centre. Above it, which is west in this orientation, are mountains that tower 3,500 meters (11,000 feet) above the surface. What appear to be glaciers, meanwhile, are located below (east of)Sputnik Planum.

The image also reveals the glorious layered haze of Plutos atmosphere, which is 90% nitrogen and 10% other complex molecules such asmethane. More than a dozen different high-altitude layers in the thin atmosphere are seen here.

A close-up of the mountainous sunlit region seen in the main image.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

In separate research, scientists think they may have found evidence for a crater on Charon that is younger than all the others. Informally named Organa, it seems to be rich in frozen ammonia whereas other nearby craters, such as the Skywalker crater, are more similar to the rest of the surface and are dominated by water ice.

This is a fantastic discovery, said Bill McKinnon, deputy lead for the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team in thestatement. Concentrated ammonia is a powerful antifreeze on icy worlds, and if the ammonia really is from Charons interior, it could help explain the formation of Charons surface by cryovolcanism, via the eruption of cold, ammonia-water magmas.

Both Organa and the nearby Skywalker crater are a similar size about 5kilometers (3miles) in diameter and also have a similar appearance. The different in composition, however, suggests Organa was created much more recently.

The craters are relatively close but different in composition.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

“Why are these two similar-looking and similar-sized craters, so near to each other, so compositionally distinct?” askedWill Grundy, New Horizons Composition team lead from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the statement.

“We have various ideas when it comes to the ammonia in Organa. The crater could be younger, or perhaps the impact that created it hit a pocket of ammonia-rich subsurface ice. Alternatively, maybe Organas impactor delivered its own ammonia.”

Fascinating data from New Horizons will continue to be returned every week for the next year. For the spacecraft itself, it has now been maneuvered towards a new target in the Kuiper Belt, which promises to return even more fascinating science in 2019.

Were being spoiled, really.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/stunning-new-vista-pluto-reveals-features-hidden-darkness0

What Is This Weird “Snail Trail” Found On Pluto?

NASAs New Horizons spacecraft has beamed down an image appearing to show a snail trail across Plutos icy wilderness.

The image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was taken on July 14,2015, however the data only reached Earth on Christmas Eve 2015. The image shows Sputnik Planum, the 20-kilometer-wide (12-mile-wide)icy plain of Pluto.

Unfortunately, NASA doesn’t think the blob is actually a snail. They say the black cosmic-gastropod is actually a dirty block of water ice being pulled through denser solid nitrogen by currents caused by density differences.The X junction is most likely to be ridged margins,according to NASA, which are raised by about 100 meters (328 feet).

This part of Pluto is acting like a lava lamp,if you can imagine a lava lamp as wide as, and even deeper than, Hudson Bay, William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, said on the NASA website.

You can check out the full-sized mosaic of Plutos icy plain imageshere.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/what-weird-snail-trail-found-pluto

New Images Reveal An Entire Day On Pluto

Those fantastic high-resolution images of Pluto youve been seeing lately have mostly just shown one side of the dwarf planet, owing to the briefflyby made by the New Horizons probe. However, in the run up to the flyby, New Horizons snapped images of the entirety of Pluto and its largest moon Charon.

As Pluto rotates once every 6.4 Earth days, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera on New Horizons were able to snap images of the rotation of the world. Starting at 8million kilometers (5million miles) out on July 7, the images run up to a distance of 645,000 kilometers (400,000 miles) on July 13, a day before the closest approach.

While oneside of Pluto with the heart-shaped region informally known as Tombaugh Regio was snapped in higher resolution, the other hemisphere will not be seen in greater detail for the foreseeable future. New Horizons snapped no better images of it, and there is no other mission to Pluto planned.

A separate mosaic reveals a full day on Plutos largest moon Charon, which again only had one hemisphere in full view of New Horizons as it sped past. It also completes a rotation every 6.4 days, meaning it is tidally locked to Pluto so it always appears in the same place in the sky from the dwarf planet.

Image credit: A full day on Charon.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Unlike Pluto, the two hemispheres of Charon look fairly similar, with craters and ridges strewn across its surface. Both worlds are continuing to produce fascinating science, such as the recent discovery of volcanoes on Pluto.

New Horizons, meanwhile, is continuing to return data to Earth but is also on its way to an encounter with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) far beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/full-day-pluto-and-charon-revealed-images-0

New Horizons Reveals The Mystery Of Kerberos

NASA just released the images weve all been waiting forour first look at Plutos fifth moon Kerberos. New Horizons passed within 396,100 kilometers (245,600 miles) of Kerberos, capturing images of Plutos tiny moon just seven hours before its closest approach. The newly released image is a combination of four separate images captured by the spacecrafts LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and was deconvoluted to reduce pixelation and reveal Kerberos in unprecedented detail.

So far, Pluto has been full of surprises, and the new pictures prove that Pluto has many more tricks up its sleeve. Kerberos may look like nothing more than a pixelated blob, but researchers can tell a lot from these images. Due to Kerberos diminutive sizea mere 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) by 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles)we are not going to get as detailedimages as we see with Nix, but we can expect exciting science data.

Prior to the Pluto encounter, scientists used Hubble images to weigh the tiny moon and measured its gravitational influence on its neighboring moons. The science team determined the force was surprisingly strong with Kerberos, as the moon had a strong influence over its neighbors, indicating it was relatively large and massive. The moon appeared very faint in Hubble images, suggesting it had a dark charcoal-like surface. However, the new images tell a very different story.Once again, the Pluto system has surprised us, New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver,from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, said in apress release.

Downlinked on October20, the new images show Kerberos to be smaller than expected with a dual-lobed shape much like we see in Hydra and inComet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently orbited by ESAs Rosetta spacecraft. The small lobe measures approximately 5 kilometers (3 miles) across, with the larger lobe spanning 8 kilometers (5 miles). Judging by its shape, the science team speculates that Kerberos formed by twosmaller objects mergingtogether.

Based on new data, Kerberos appears to be smaller than expected and has a highlyreflective surface. Kerberos reflects approximately 50 percent of the light that hits it, indicating its surface is coated with relatively clean water ice, just like the other small moons. Since the predictions forNix, Hydra, and Styxwere pretty accurate, scientists are baffled by Kerberos and how different it appears to be.Our predictions were nearly spot-on for the other small moons, but not for Kerberos, said New Horizons co-investigator Mark Showalterof the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told IFLScience, We didnt expect Kerberos to have two lobes and such a reflective surface. The previous HST results didnt show any indications and predicted that Kerberos would have a darker surface. All in allthe four small satellites fit in as much brighter than Charon, and were likely to have originated from the giant impact that formed Charon.

With the new data and images collected by New Horizons, the team hopes to have a better understanding of Plutos family of moons.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/new-horizons-reveals-mystery-kerberos

Pluto Is Losing Less Atmosphere Than We Thought

In less than a year, Pluto has gone from a minor object far away from the Sun to a key piece in our understanding of how the Solar System formed, as evidence by the publication of five new papers in the journal Science this week.

Here, we take a look at two of those papers,examiningPlutos atmosphere and the space environment surrounding the dwarf planet, respectively. You can check out our other story for the other three papers.

During NASAs New Horizonsflyby last July, the probe was able to analyze the atmosphere of Pluto in detail. The lower part of the atmosphere is consistent with previous ground-based observations, but the upper atmosphere is significantly different tothat of previous models.

According to the first paper,the outer layers of the atmosphere seem to have a significantly lower temperature than expected.

We have a model for the atmospheric variance with altitude and it seems that temperature profile has to be a lot colder in the upper atmosphere,lead author Dr. Randall Gladstone told IFLScience.This has a big implication about the composition of the upper atmosphere.

Because its so cold, the abundance of nitrogen falls off more steeply with altitude than the methane does. Normally they would separate at high altitude, but on Pluto, that happens a lot lower than expected.

It gets much colder than we thought it was. And it lowers how much nitrogen can escape from Pluto, its much less than we thought and that affects the space environment, Dr. Gladstoneadded.

We thought that maybe up to a kilometer worth of nitrogen ice had escaped from Pluto over the age of the Solar System. If its anything like the current escape rate that couldnt be true, it would be a few centimeters at most.

Backlit by the sun, Plutos atmosphere is visible against the dark planet.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The second paper looking at the space environment, also published in Science, has some unexpected findings, showing that the region surrounding Pluto is not like any other in the Solar System.

Astronomers expected to find a large outgassing (release of gas) from Pluto’satmosphere, and that would have had a large interaction with the solar wind. But the team discovered that the interaction was significantly more modest than expected.

Speaking to IFLScience, Professor Fran Bagenal, lead author of the second paper, said: The space environment is quite different from what we thought. Pluto is quite an unusual obstacle to the solar wind, and we saw 10 times less particle intensity around Pluto [than predicted].

Another important discovery is the amount of dust in the surrounding region. Scientists thought that meteorite impacts on Pluto and its moons might have filled the system with debris, but the data suggests that this is not the case.

Although the papers have shone a light on many aspects of Pluto, mysteries still remain about it. For example, the New Horizons team is not sure if the small outgassing of Pluto’s atmosphere is a long-term or a short-term trend.

Its abig if’the current escape rate that we are measuring is a good long-term average,said Dr. Gladstone.We are not really sure whats cooling it off, we thought it was hydrogen cyanide but theres contradictory evidence from ground observations. We are still trying to figure out.

While Plutos atmosphere remains a more complex system than expected, some questions have been answers. Pluto has layers of hazemoving in its skies, and the paper suggests gravity waves as the culprit for its formation. Gravity waves (not to be confused with gravitational waves) are waves generated by the different buoyancy of layers, like sea waves or clouds being shaped when they move over mountains.

Pluto has mountains too and the wind blowing over those mountains could form gravity waves, and concentrate particles of haze into layers,concluded Dr. Gladstone.With reasonable assumption it seems to fit all the reasonable data so far.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/plutos-losing-less-atmosphere-we-thought

Astonishing New Images Show What Appear To Be CLOUDS On Pluto

Images acquired by Jacob Aron atNew Scientist have revealed what appear to be clouds on Pluto. If confirmed, the findings would be hugely significant, suggesting there is a large amount of atmospheric activity taking place on the dwarf planet.

The pictures from New Horizons, which have not been publicly released yet, appear to show clumps in the haze of Pluto that may be individual clouds. In emails seen by New Scientist, researchers involved with the mission picked out a few features in particular.

At the moment, we do not know what might be causing the clouds, or what they might be made of.However, an upcoming paper from the researchers in the journal Sciencemay reveal further details.

The labelled image acquired by New Scientist appears to show individual clouds on Pluto.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“The emails do not discuss what the clouds might be made of,” said New Scientist.”They are likely to be of similar composition to the general atmosphere, which according to the teams upcoming Science paper, consists of nitrogen, with traces of methane, acetylene, ethylene and ethane.”

Until then, well just have to gawp at the latest awesome bit of science to come from this amazing world.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/are-there-clouds-pluto

Astronomers Think They’ve Discovered A Neptune-Sized Ninth Planet Beyond Pluto

In 2005, the discovery of the dwarf planet Eris by Caltech astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues ultimately led to Pluto being demoted as the ninth planet of the Solar System a year later. Brown took to his status as the man who relegated Pluto with aplomb; his handle on Twitter is, rather appropriately, plutokiller.

But new research, published today in The Astronomical JournalbyBrown and his colleague Konstantin Batygin, is sure to cause a stir. He is proposing the existence of a real ninth planet of the Solar System, dubbed Planet Nine and ostentatiously nicknamed Phattie,that would be almost the size of Neptune.

The planet has not been observed; rather, the astronomers have put together a mathematical model that infers its existence. We have a gravitational signature of a giant planet in the outer Solar System, Batygin told Nature. But interestingly, they say that some of the most powerful telescopes on Earth at the moment may be capable of spotting it and it may already be hiding in existing images.

Evidence for Planet Nine comes from the observed motion of objects in the Kuiper Belt, a vast region of comets beyond the orbit of Pluto. According to the paper, it suggests there is a planet ten times the mass of Earth on a hugely elliptical orbit around the Sun, completing an orbit every 10,000 to 20,000 years and never getting closer than 200 times the Earth-Sun distance.

Ahefty degree of skepticism is certainly needed, though. After all, the infamous Planet X and the mythical Nibiru have been circling in astronomy and conspiracy circles for years. Planet Nine has not even been seen yet; its too early to say it exists for definite. But Brown himself is confident.

OK, OK, I am now willing to admit: I DO believe that the solar system has nine planets, he wrote on Twitter.

Shown is the predicted elliptical orbit for Planet Nine, and other orbits for known distant objects in the Solar System. Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

In their paper, Brown and Batygin say there is only a 0.007 percent chance that the observed clustering of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) is due to chance,suggesting another origin. We find that the observed orbital alignment can be maintained by a distant eccentric planet with mass [greater than 10 Earths], they wrote. The planet could also explain the elliptical orbits of dwarf planets like Sedna.

One possible explanation for the planets existence, according to the authors, is that it was a giant planet core that was ejected during the early Solar System, something that may be common in planetary systems.

The discovery of a ninth planet in the Solar System would be huge, and thats an understatement. Astronomers have previously predicted the existence of hundreds of dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, but so far no solid theories exist for a large planet like Planet Nine.

This paper is sure to be pored over, scrutinized, and perhaps even discredited, so dont expect to have to learn a new mnemonic for the planets any time soon. But be prepared; the man who killed Pluto might just have given a new lease of life to the hypothesized existence of a ninth world in our Solar System.

For the first time in over 150 years, there is solid evidence that the Solar Systems planetary census is incomplete, said Batygin in a statement.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/possible-ninth-planet-solar-system-discovered

Enormous Volcano On Pluto Might Be The Biggest In The Outer Solar System

In the inner Solar System, the biggest volcano we know of is Olympus Mons on Mars, 624 kilometers (374 miles) across and 25 kilometers (16 miles) high. But what about in the outer Solar System?

Well, that record might now belong to Pluto. If a feature known as Wright Mons on this dwarf planet is confirmed as a volcano, it will take the title of the biggest such feature beyond Mars.

Named in honor of the Wright brothers, this massive ice structure can be seen circled by the red ring in the new image above. It is 150 kilometers (90 miles) wide and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) high and appears to have volcano-like features, including a central depression that resembles a volcanic crater.

This image was returned by the New Horizons spaceraft, part of the ongoing data that is being returned after the flyby on July 14, 2015. Taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from a distance of 48,000 kilometers (30,000 miles), it shows features as small as 450 meters (1,500 feet) across.

Color data was provided by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), obtained from a distance of 34,000 kilometers (21,000 miles).

Wright Mons is located near to a large smooth region called Sputnik Planum.NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One intriguing unanswered question is why there is only a smattering of red material known as tholins in the region.In addition, a lack of impact craters suggests that this surface is relatively young, meaning it has changed in the last few million years, possibly due to Wright Mons being active in Plutos late history. Wright Mons also has similarities to another theorized cryovolcano (ice volcano)on Pluto, Piccard Mons, which is slightly higher at 6 kilometers (3.5 miles).

Were not yet ready to announce we have found volcanic constructs at Pluto, but these sure look suspicious, and were looking at them very closely, said Jeff Moore, a planetary scientist at NASAs Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, who heads the New Horizons geology team, when the structures were first studiedlast year.

If they are confirmed to be volcanoes that were active relatively recently, it would mean that Pluto likely has some sort of internal heat source. The cause of thisis not known, but it could be the radioactive decay of elements that remain from Plutos birth.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/pluto-might-have-biggest-volcano-outer-solar-system

A Dwarf Planet Beyond Neptune Is Bigger Than We Thought

In the last few years, we have started to realize that the dwarf planets beyond Neptuneare just as complex and diverse as the “official” eight planets of the Solar System. Among the dwarf planetsis the unnamed 2007 OR10, a small reddish object currently 13 billion kilometers (8 billion miles) from the Sun. And we’ve now got a better grasp on how big it is.

By combining optical observations from the Kepler observatory and infrared detections from the Herschel satellite, a team of astronomers was able to estimate both its size and its rotational period. The research is published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The team believes2007 OR10rotates on its axis roughly once every 45 hours (although a rotation every 22 hours cannot be ruled out), and by using this information they were able to revise the size estimate to 1,535 kilometers (955 miles) across. If the new measurement is confirmed, it makes 2007 OR10 the third largest trans-Neptunian object.

The new size, which is 250 kilometers higher than previous estimates, has also led the researchers to establish that the dwarf planet is actually darker, based on the fact that the same amount of light we observe is now reflected by a larger area. A bigger size also means higher gravity, indicating that the planet is retaining more complex chemicals, henceits dark reddish color.

“Our revised larger size for 2007 OR10 makes it increasingly likely the planet is covered in volatile ices of methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen, which would be easily lost to space by a smaller object,” said Andrs Pl, lead author of the study, in a statement.

“It’s thrilling to tease out details like this about a distant, new world especially since it has such an exceptionally dark and reddish surface for its size.”

Kepler results put2007 OR10 as the largest unnamed body in our Solar System and the third largest ofthedwarf planets.Konkoly Observatory/Andrs Pl, Hungarian Astronomical Association/Ivn der, NASA/JHUAPL/SwR

The new size measurement is certainly interestingand should allow 2007 OR10 to be finally accepted as a dwarf planet, but some are cautious asit has larger uncertainties than any other confirmed dwarf planet. Makemake, another trans-Neptunian object, is only slightly smaller, so the sizemight change with future observations. 2007 OR10 is certainly the largest object in the Solar System without a name, though.

The honor of naming it belongs to the discoverers Meg Schwamb, Mike Brown, and David Rabinowitz. Mike Brown, known for being the discoverer of Eris, the object thatcost Pluto its planetary status, said in a tweet that the naming will happen soon.

“The names of Pluto-sized bodies each tell a story about the characteristics of their respective objects. In the past, we haven’t known enough about 2007 OR10 to give it a name that would do it justice,” said Schwamb. “I think we’re coming to a point where we can give 2007 OR10 its rightful name.”

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/new-observations-make-2007-or10-largest-unnamed-object-solar-system