Tag Archives: New Horizon

Pluto and Charon – A dynamic pair

Pluto and Charon – A dynamic pair

They’re a fascinating pair: Two icy worlds, spinning around their common center of gravity like a pair of figure skaters clasping hands. Scientists believe they were shaped by a cosmic collision billions of years ago, and yet, in many ways, they seem more like strangers than siblings.

A high-contrast array of bright and dark features covers Pluto’s surface, while on Charon, only a dark polar region interrupts a generally more uniform light gray terrain. The reddish materials that color Pluto are absent on Charon. Pluto has a significant atmosphere; Charon does not. On Pluto, exotic ices like frozen nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide have been found, while Charon’s surface is made of frozen water and ammonia compounds. The interior of Pluto is mostly rock, while Charon contains equal measures of rock and water ice.

“These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different,” said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.

Charon is about 750 miles (1200 kilometers) across, about half the diameter of Pluto—making it the solar system’s largest moon relative to its planet. Its smaller size and lower surface contrast have made it harder for New Horizons to capture its surface features from afar, but the latest, closer images of Charon’s surface show intriguing fine details.

Newly revealed are brighter areas on Charon that members of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team (GGI) suspect might be impact craters. If so, the scientists would put them to good use. “If we see impact craters on Charon, it will help us see what’s hidden beneath the surface,” said GGI leader Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Large craters can excavate material from several miles down and reveal the composition of the interior.”

In short, said GGI deputy team leader John Spencer of SwRI, “Charon is now emerging as its own world. Its personality is beginning to really reveal itself.”

NASA’s unmanned New Horizons spacecraft is closing in on the Pluto system after a more than nine-year, three-billion-mile journey. On July 14 it will zip past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments busily gathering data. The mission will complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system with the first-ever look at the icy dwarf planet.

Follow the New Horizons mission with #PlutoFlyby and on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/new.horizons1

By Tricia Talbert courtesy of NASA.gov
The two faces of Pluto

The two faces of Pluto

New color images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show two very different faces of the mysterious dwarf planet, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced. Each of the spots is about 300 miles (480 kilometers) in diameter.

Scientists have yet to see anything quite like the dark spots; their presence has piqued the interest of the New Horizons science team, due to the remarkable consistency in their spacing and size. While the origin of the spots is a mystery for now, the answer may be revealed as the spacecraft continues its approach to the mysterious dwarf planet. The patches may be due to impacts, geological features from an active period in the planet’s history, and may help answer the question as to why Pluto looks so different from its twin, Charon.

New Horizons team members combined black-and-white images of Pluto and Charon from the spacecraft’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) with lower-resolution color data from the Ralph instrument to produce these views. We see the planet and its largest moon in approximately true color, that is, the way they would appear if you were riding on the New Horizons spacecraft. About half of Pluto is imaged, which means features shown near the bottom of the dwarf planet are at approximately at the equatorial line.

Photos from NASA

Pluto shows two remarkably different sides in these color images of the planet and its largest moon Charon taken by New Horizons

Pluto and Charon come into view

Pluto and Charon come into view

Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, posed for a solemn portrait taken by NASA’s New Horizon’s probe, which is only two weeks away from its close encounter with the dwarf planet.

The newest snapshot of Pluto and Charon shows two icy gray circles hovering in a pitch-black void. In previous images, the two objects often looked like highly pixelated smudges of color — barely distinguishable as spheres. But with New Horizons only about 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) away from Pluto (and closing that distance by more than 30,000 miles, or 48,000 km, every hour), the view of these unexplored worlds is getting clearer every day.

“Looking at pictures on the website, you can see that Pluto and Charon are becoming more distinct in their surface features,” Alice Bowman, the missions operations manager for New Horizons, said today (June 30) in a mission update. “It’s getting pretty exciting. And every day is bringing new features into light.” [New Horizons’ Pluto Imagery Will Amaze Us (Video)]
New Horizons launched in January of 2006 and has spent the last nine-plus years making its way toward Pluto and the region of icy bodies beyond Neptune, known as the Kuiper Belt. Although four other human-made probes have ventured past the orbit of Neptune, none have done a close study of Pluto and its moons. Even the Hubble Space Telescope’s images of this small, dim dwarf planet are highly pixelated and blurry. New Horizons hopes to reveal a detailed look at the surface of Pluto, study its atmosphere and much more.

The new portrait of Pluto and Charon was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument onboard New Horizons. These images are not only for scientific and aesthetic purposes, but also for navigational ones, according to a statement from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland (mission control for New Horizons).

With nearly 3 billion miles (4.8 billion km) between them, it takes about 4.5 hours to send a signal from the Maryland control center to New Horizons, Bowman said. As a result, team members have to tell the probe what to do (such as which instruments to point at Pluto) long before the probe actually does it. When the probe makes its close flyby of Pluto on July 14, the team will not be able to make any last-minute adjustments. Instead, New Horizons runs prewritten command sequences, most of which were written years before they were executed.

The command sequences must also indicate where Pluto is located relative to the probe, and thus where New Horizons should point its instruments. The New Horizons team has been constantly updating that navigational information as the probe moves closer and can obtain more precise information about Pluto’s location. Earlier this month, the team executed a course correction to ensure the spacecraft didn’t arrive at its close encounter point too early; that kind of miscalculation could cause the probe to take photos of empty space instead of the dwarf planet, researchers said.

Full Portrait of Pluto and Charon
Pin It The full portrait of Pluto and and its largest moon Charon, taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument on board New Horizons, and released on June 29.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research InstituteView full size image
In the next few days, Bowman said, the New Horizons team will be uploading the command sequence that will guide the probe through its historic flyby. There’s also a possibility that the team will execute another course correction.

“And of course [we’ll be] getting down lots of science data, optical navigation data,” Bowman said. “It’s going to be great.”

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield