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Number Won 2015. 7. 6. 05:44

July 3, 2015

 

Pluto: The 'Other' Red Planet

New Horizons scientists combined the latest black and white map of Pluto’s surface features (left) with a map of the planet’s colors (right) to produce a detailed color portrait of the planet’s northern hemisphere (center).

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

What color is Pluto? The answer, revealed in the first maps made from New Horizons data, turns out to be shades of reddish brown. Although this is reminiscent of Mars, the cause is almost certainly very different. on Mars the coloring agent is iron oxide, commonly known as rust. on the dwarf planet Pluto, the reddish color is likely caused by hydrocarbon molecules that are formed when cosmic rays and solar ultraviolet light interact with methane in Pluto’s atmosphere and on its surface.

“Pluto’s reddish color has been known for decades, but New Horizons is now allowing us to correlate the color of different places on the surface with their geology and soon, with their compositions,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “This will make it possible to build sophisticated computer models to understand how Pluto has evolved to its current appearance."

Experts have long thought that reddish substances are generated as a particular color of ultraviolet light from the sun, called Lyman-alpha, strikes molecules of the gas methane (CH4) in Pluto’s atmosphere, powering chemical reactions that create complex compounds called tholins. The tholins drop to the ground to form a reddish “gunk.” Recent measurements with New Horizons’ Alice instrument reveal that a diffuse Lyman-alpha glow falling on Pluto from all directions in interplanetary space is strong enough to produce almost as much tholin as the direct rays of the sun. “This means Pluto’s reddening process occurs even on the night side where there’s no sunlight, and in the depths of winter when the sun remains below the horizon for decades at a time,” said New Horizons co-investigator Michael Summers, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.

Tholins have been found on other bodies in the outer solar system, including Titan and Triton, the largest moons of Saturn and Neptune, respectively, and made in laboratory experiments that simulate the atmospheres of those bodies. 

The mission’s first map of Pluto is in approximate true color—that is, the color you would see if you were riding on New Horizons. At left, a map of Pluto’s northern hemisphere composed using high-resolution black-and-white images from New Horizons LORRI instrument. At right is a map of Pluto’s colors created using data from the Ralph instrument. In the center is the combined map, produced by merging the LORRI and Ralph data.

“Now the unique colors and characteristics of its varied terrains are coming into view," said Simon Porter, a member of the New Horizons Geology and Geophysics team. Added Alex Parker, a member of the New Horizons Composition team, "Pluto's largest dark spot is clearly more red than the majority of the surface, while the brightest area appears closer to neutral gray."

Scientists hope to learn more about the cause of Pluto’s reddish tint as New Horizons closes in for its July 14 flyby.

Pluto: A Remarkable World

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Hörst Laboratory have produced complex chemical compounds called tholins, which may give Pluto its reddish hue.

Credits: Chao He, Xinting Yu, Sydney Riemer, and Sarah Hörst, Johns Hopkins University

Even though New Horizons is still millions of miles from Pluto, its highest resolution imager is revealing a remarkably complex surface.

This image of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, taken by the LORRI instrument on July 1, 2015 from a distance of 10 million miles (16 million kilometers), shows features as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across.

This view shows the side of Pluto that will be viewed in highest resolution by New Horizons when it flies past the planet on July 14. Near the equator, sharp edged dark regions are surrounded by brighter terrain. Farther north, shadings are more subtle, with suggestions of a more varied, mottled surface.

“Even at this resolution, Pluto looks like no other world in our solar system,” said mission scientist Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. “We’re already seeing a remarkable amount of detail, and the complexity continues to increase as the images get better.”

Pluto and its largest moon Charon seen from New Horizons on July 1, 2015. The inset shows Pluto enlarged; features as small as 100 miles (160 kilometers) across are visible.

Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Lillian Gipson

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

New Horizons

July 3, 2015

Pluto and Charon Surfaces in Living Color

This is the first movie created by New Horizons to reveal color surface features of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. “It’s a bit unusual to see so much surface detail at this distance,” said New Horizons co-investigator William McKinnon of the Geology and Geophysics Investigation Team, Washington University in Saint Louis. “What’s especially noteworthy is the level of detail in both bodies. It’s certainly whetting our appetite for what’s to come.”

The images were taken between June 23 and June 29, 2015, as New Horizons’ distance to Pluto decreased from a distance of 15 million to 11 million miles (24 million to 18 million kilometers). Six high-resolution black-and-white images from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to produce the movie.

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Lillian Gipson

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

July 3, 2015

NASA Met Unprecedented Challenges Sending Spacecraft to Pluto

On June 2, 2015, Kennedy Space Center employees heard a panel discussion with key individuals who supported the New Horizons mission to Pluto. From the left are, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, Ph.D., of the Southwest Research Institute, Si Song, Lockheed Martin's third stage integrator for the Atlas V, now the Spacecraft Integration lead for United Launch Alliance; and Chuck Tatro, the New Horizons launch site mission manager for NASA's Launch Services Program, now chief of the Launch Site Integration Branch of LSP, Moderating the discussion, on the far right, is George Diller of NASA Communications.

Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett

In NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility, the New Horizons probe is moved toward a work stand for a checkout on Sept. 25, 2005. The 1,054-pound, piano-sized spacecraft is topped by a high-gain dish antenna to transmit data across three billion miles back to Earth.

Credits: NASA

Enclosed in its payload fairing on Dec. 17, 2005, the New Horizons spacecraft is mounted atop its Lockheed Martin Atlas V rocket in the Vertical Integration Facility at Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Credits: NASA

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft roars off Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 41 atop an Atlas V rocket on Jan. 19, 2006. Since then, the compact probe received a boost from a third stage solid propellant kick motor for its journey to Pluto. New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched, passing through the moon's orbit in just nine hours. The flight path allowed New Horizons to fly past Jupiter in early 2007 and use the planet’s gravity as a slingshot toward Pluto.

Credits: NASA

By Bob Granath
NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida

NASA's New Horizons mission presented challenges like no other, but its goal also was unprecedented. The spacecraft will soon begin a study of the farthest reaches of the solar system. It was an historic journey of over 3.6 billion miles that began at the agency's Florida spaceport.

Plans call for New Horizons to send the first-ever, close-up images and scientific observations of distant Pluto, its system of large and small moons, and the Kuiper Belt. A region of the solar system beyond the planets, the Kuiper Belt consists mainly of small planetary bodies.

To reach its primary target, the New Horizons spacecraft has traveled farther away and a longer time -- more than nine years -- than any previous space mission. The flight through the Pluto system is planned to begin July 14, 2015. It will complete the initial reconnaissance of the classical solar system, expanding the frontiers of knowledge, capability and opportunity in space.

Alan Stern, Ph.D., New Horizons principal investigator, recently spoke to several hundred Kennedy Space Center employees, many of whom helped process and launch the first Pluto probe.

"For all of you who worked on this, thank you very much; it worked flawlessly," said Stern, who is associate vice president for Research and Development at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. "For the whole scientific community, for our science team, for our mission team, and for all the people who worked this, a big round of applause to all of you."

The New Frontiers project was approved in June 2001 with the mission profile proposed and the spacecraft built by a team led by Stern and including researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

Early in the process, the New Frontiers team contacted representatives of NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"Soon after the mission was approved, we began discussions about what would be the best launch vehicle to provide the needed energy to send the spacecraft at unprecedented speeds and distances," said Mike Stelzer, who was LSP's mission manager for New Horizons. "We selected the Atlas V rocket to give us the needed boost for a 1,054-pound, piano-sized spacecraft at the speed necessary for a three-billion-mile trip."

The chosen version of the Lockheed Martin Atlas V used five strap-on solid rocket boosters, more than any previous launch. Added to that was a powerful Centaur upper stage.

"And all of that was still not enough," said Stelzer, who now works in the Vehicle Integration and Launch Support Branch of Kennedy's Ground Systems Development and Operations Program. "To get that needed additional push to achieve the required 'escape velocity,' we added the upper stage of a Boeing Delta II rocket."

According to Chuck Tatro, who was the New Horizons launch site mission manager for LSP, additional effort was needed to coordinate the many organizations involved.

"Ordinarily, mission meetings involve 30 to 40 people," he said. "For this, progress reviews frequently included 50 to 60 and sometimes as many as 100."

In addition to NASA, support came from SwRI, APL, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, the Idaho National Laboratory, and representatives from the New Horizons Program Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

"It was a challenge to coordinate that may roles in the project," said Tatro who currently is chief of the Launch Site Integration Branch of LSP, "but since we were sending a probe to an unexplored planet, it was an exciting time."

New Horizons was transported by a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane arriving at Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility on Sept. 24, 2005.

"It was about 9 or 10 p.m. that night and everyone was pretty enthusiastic," Tatro said. "Sending a probe to Pluto had been a dream for a long time, and now the spacecraft was at the last stepping-off point before that long journey began."

After New Horizons was unloaded, it was transported to the center's Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF) for preflight preparations.

Stelzer explained a careful focus of preflight processing was the Pluto probe's power source.

"Traveling as far away from the sun as New Horizons did, means solar panels are useless," he said. "Batteries and fuel cells also wouldn't work due to the length of the mission. That meant using a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG."

An RTG is an electrical generator that uses an array of thermocouples to produce electricity though the heat released by the decay of a suitable radioactive material, in this case plutonium. The unit for New Horizons was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy at the Materials and Fuels Complex, a part of the Idaho National Laboratory.

"We made sure the design and configuration was well vetted to ensure the RTG was safe," Stelzer said.

While the spacecraft was being processed in the PHSF, the launch vehicle was being prepared at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Atlas V booster and Centaur second stage arrived at the Cape Skid Strip in late August 2005. Both were processed in the Atlas Space Operations Center. on Sept. 29, 2005, the first stage of an Atlas V rocket was raised to vertical on Launch Complex 41 at the Cape and the Centaur added shortly thereafter. Preparations for launch continued in the 30-story Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) with attachment of the five solid rocket motors.

This is where the New Horizons team faced their next challenge.

"Hurricane Wilma blew through while we were stacking the rocket," Stelzer said. "Part of a door tore off in the high winds and hit one of the solids."

Wilma crossed Florida on Oct. 24, 2005. The highest wind gust recorded at the spaceport was 94 mph, while the maximum sustained wind was 76 mph. A portion of a 41-by-275-foot reinforced fabric "megadoor" on the VIF blew off, causing some debris to impact a solid rocket booster. Lockheed Martin technicians replaced the damaged solid-fuel booster.

"They did a great job recovering from the storm and that kept us on schedule," Tatro said. "From the beginning of the project, we were on a tight timeline to take advantage of a brief lineup of Earth, Jupiter and Pluto."

The launch window extended from Jan. 11 to Feb 14, 2006. However, launching within the first 23 days would allow New Horizons to swing past Jupiter for a gravity assist that would speed the travel to Pluto. Although there were backup launch opportunities in February 2006 and February 2007, any launch outside the primary period would have forced the spacecraft to fly a slower trajectory directly to Pluto, delaying its encounter by five to six years.

A gravity assist maneuver puts a spacecraft in a trajectory close enough to a planet to use its gravity. This alters the probe's path in a "slingshot maneuver" to change speed saving propellant and travel time.

On Dec. 17, 2005, Tatro took a last look at New Horizons just before it was encapsulated in its payload fairing.

"It looked like a big grand piano, with the RTG stuck out to one side, topped off by a big seven-foot, high-gain dish antenna," he said. "It is an elegant spacecraft."

After the New Horizons spacecraft with its Delta II Star 48 third stage kick motor was transported from the PHSF to Launch Complex 41, it was mounted atop the booster rocket.

Lockheed Martin's Si Song was the third stage integrator for the Atlas V. He monitored the final countdown from the launch control center of the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center at Cape Canaveral just four miles from pad 41. He still remembers the emotions of the moment.

"I had two thoughts going through my mind," said Song, now the Spacecraft Integration lead for United Launch Alliance. one was, this is going to be the fastest man-made object in the solar system once it gets off its rocket. The second thing was that this is the last time that any human is going to see the spacecraft before it started on its three-billion-plus-mile journey to the edge of our solar system. It was really exciting and it almost brought tears to my eyes."

Launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 19, 2006, New Horizons received a gravity assist from Jupiter during its closest approach in 2007. That increased the probe's speed by 9,000 mph, successfully shortening its voyage to Pluto. New Horizons' closest approach will be on July 14, 2015, later passing Pluto's largest moon, Charon.

"This is one of the more memorable things that has happened in our time," Stern said, "the exploration of our solar system."

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Bob Granath

Tags:  Kennedy Space Center, Kuiper Belt, New Horizons, Planets, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

July 2, 2015

Exploring the Unexplored: New Horizons' Mission to Pluto

Alan Stern, Ph.D., principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, describes expectations for the probe's fly-by of Pluto. He currently is associate vice president for Research and Development at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett

This composite image of Jupiter and its moon, Io, was taken during the New Horizons spacecraft's gravity assist flyby on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2007.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Goddard Space Flight Center

This artist's concept depicts the New Horizons spacecraft during its planned encounter with Pluto and its moon, Charon. The craft's cameras, science experiments, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments will characterize the geology, surface compositions, temperatures and atmosphere of both Pluto and Charon.

Credits: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This illustration notes that New Horizons was launched in January 2006, passed Jupiter in February 2007 and will make its closest approach to Pluto with its eccentric orbit (noted in yellow) during July 2015. Over the next five years, the spacecraft will enter the zone of KBOs, or Kuiper Belt Objects. Often called the “third zone” of the solar system, the Kuiper Belt swirls beyond both the inner zone of rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) and the middle zone of the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). The Kuiper Belt is the largest structure in the solar system, holding an estimated 100,000-plus miniature worlds, many with diameters no larger than 62 miles.

Credits: NASA

By Bob Granath
NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft soon will pass through the outer edges of the solar system. After a nine year and more than 3.6 billion mile trip, plans call for the probe to provide the first close up observations of Pluto and the most distant objects in the solar system.

"Of course we've seen it before, but we've never seen it like we're going to see it on July 14," said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, Ph.D., during a recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center.

Lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Jan. 19, 2006, New Horizons has traveled a longer time and farther away than any previous space mission to reach its primary destination, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

On June 2, New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, Ph.D., spoke to Kennedy Space Center employees, providing a preview of what to expect when the spacecraft makes its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.

"It's an epic journey across the solar system," said Stern, who is associate vice president for Research and Development at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

The New Frontiers spacecraft was built by a team led by Stern and included researchers from SwRI and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. APL also operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission.

"Nothing like this has happened since the Voyager program launched in 1977," said Stern.

During the mid-1960s, the United States and Soviet Union began sending probes to the planets closest to Earth – Venus and Mars. However, it was not until the 1970s that spacecraft were being launched toward Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. The most significant step was Voyager 2, also referred to as the "Grand Tour." Launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977, it passed Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989.

"I'm particularly proud of the tradition that began in 1962 with Mariner to Venus," said Stern, a former associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "The United States was first to every planet in the solar system. Centuries from now people will read about how, in one short period of time, a little over 50 years, we started from scratch eventually exploring across the solar system. But, we have a bit of unfinished business. New Horizons is going to complete that."

New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 19, 2006 directly into an Earth-and-solar-escape trajectory. After the spacecraft separated from its third stage solid-fuel kick motor 44 minutes, 53 seconds after launch, the Pluto probe was on its way at 36,373 mph. With that velocity, it needed only nine hours to pass through the moon's orbit.

The planet Jupiter provided New Horizons with a gravity assist when it passed within 1.4 million miles on Feb. 28, 2007. A gravity assist maneuver puts a spacecraft in a trajectory close enough to a planet to use its gravity. This alters the probe's path in a "slingshot maneuver" to change speed saving propellant and travel time.

The Jupiter flyby increased New Horizons speed, accelerating the probe to 51,000 mph and shortening its voyage to Pluto by five to six years.

During the Jupiter encounter, New Horizons trained its science instruments on the large planet and its moons. After that, Chuck Tatro, who was the New Horizons launch site mission manager for LSP, explains the spacecraft was placed in "electronic hibernation" for much of the trip to Pluto. New Horizons pioneered routine cruise-flight hibernation. Not only has it reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.

"Throughout the almost nine-year trip, flight controllers would 'wake up' New Horizons once every year to confirm the health of the spacecraft and perform any needed course corrections," he said. "It was brought out of its final hibernation period on Dec. 6, 2014 to prepare for the Pluto encounter this summer."

When New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto begins, the probe will perform a flyby during which it will attempt to take detailed measurements and images of the small planet and its moons.

"It will whiz by Pluto," said Tatro, who currently is chief of the Launch Site Integration Branch of LSP. "The fly-by will last only eight to 10 hours. We'll be receiving the bulk of the data during a period of about 24 hours."

Due to the 3.625-billion-mile distance, it will take about four-and-a-half hours for the signals to reach Earth with the long-awaited information.

"The closest approach period really starts around the first of the month, (July 2015) and goes for several weeks," Stern said. "About 900 scientific observations will be taking place."

New Horizons is intended to pass within 6,200 miles of Pluto, at about 7:50 a.m. EDT on July 14. The spacecraft will have a relative velocity of 30,800 mph at its approach and will come as close as 17,000 miles to Pluto's largest moon, Charon.

"This is true exploration," Stern said. "We're going to write the book on Pluto."

Planetary scientists believe Pluto is primarily made of rock and ice and is relatively small, about one-sixth the mass of the moon and one-third its volume.

"Pluto is about the size of the United States," Stern said. "Charon is about the size of Texas."

Charon has a diameter just over half that of Pluto with the two sometimes described as a binary system. This is because the barycenter of their orbits do not lie within either body. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has yet to formalize a definition for binary dwarf planets and Charon is still officially classified as a moon of Pluto along with Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.

When the New Horizons spacecraft was launched, Pluto was still classified as a planet, later to be reclassified as a dwarf planet by the IAU. Stern disagrees with that definition and still describes Pluto as a planet.

"We're just learning that a lot of planets are small planets and we didn't know that before," he said. "Fact is, in planetary science, objects such as Pluto and the other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt are considered planets and called planets in everyday discourse in scientific meetings."

Pluto's orbital period is 248 Earth years and its orbital characteristics are substantially different from those of the planets. From Mercury to Neptune, the other bodies circle the sun following nearly circular, almost flat, orbits. In contrast, Pluto has an eccentric and highly inclined orbit that takes it from 2.8 to 4.6 billion miles from the sun. Hence, Pluto periodically comes closer to the sun than Neptune, but their orbital resonance prevents the bodies from colliding.

Tatro noted that for the past nine years, Pluto's 3.625-billion-mile distance from the sun gives a rare opportunity to determine the nature of any atmosphere.

"Due to this 'relative closeness' to the Sun, scientists feel this provides the best hope of detecting any type of atmosphere around Pluto," he said. "This is because of the sun's weak heating at this 'closer' distance."

After its flyby of Pluto, New Horizons may also open the door to an entirely new zone of mysterious small planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt, a large area with numerous objects beyond Neptune's orbit.

"Gerard Kuiper, who was a leading 20th century planetary scientist, believed that the reason Pluto looked like a misfit was that our technology was not good enough to find things orbiting with it," Stern said.

The Kuiper Belt is a region of the solar system beyond the planets, extending beyond the orbit of Neptune. It is similar to the asteroid belt, but it is much larger -- 20 times as wide and 20 to 200 times as massive. Like the asteroid belt, it consists mainly of small bodies, or remnants from the solar system's formation.

By expanding the frontiers of knowledge, capability and opportunity in space, NASA hopes to better understand the farthest reaches of the solar system, answering questions about Earth and life beyond.

"The universe has a lot more variety than we thought about and that's wonderful," Stern said. "The most exciting discoveries will likely be the ones we don't anticipate."

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Bob Granath

Tags:  Kennedy Space Center, Kuiper Belt, New Horizons, Planets, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

July 1, 2015

New Horizons Update: Methane Detected; New Images of Pluto and Charon; Sunrise/Sunset Observations

The location of the New Horizons Ralph instrument, which detected methane on Pluto, is shown. The inset is a false color image of Pluto and Charon in infrared light; pink indicates methane on Pluto’s surface.

Credits: Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Yes, there is methane on Pluto, and, no, it doesn’t come from cows. The infrared spectrometer on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has detected frozen methane on Pluto’s surface; Earth-based astronomers first observed the chemical compound on Pluto in 1976.

“We already knew there was methane on Pluto, but these are our first detections,” said Will Grundy, the New Horizons Surface Composition team leader with the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Soon we will know if there are differences in the presence of methane ice from one part of Pluto to another.”

Methane (chemical formula CH4) is an odorless, colorless gas that is present underground and in the atmosphere on Earth. on Pluto, methane may be primordial, inherited from the solar nebula from which the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Methane was originally detected on Pluto’s surface by a team of ground-based astronomers led by New Horizons team member Dale Cruikshank, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California.

Come Fly with New Horizons on its Approach to Pluto

Images from New Horizons show the view from aboard the spacecraft closes in on the Pluto system for a July 14 flyby.

This time-lapse approach movie was made from images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera aboard New Horizons spacecraft taken between May 28 and June 25, 2015. During that time the spacecraft distance to Pluto decreased almost threefold, from about 35 million miles to 14 million miles (56 million kilometers to 22 million kilometers). The images show Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, growing in apparent size as New Horizons closes in. As it rotates, Pluto displays a strongly contrasting surface dominated by a bright northern hemisphere, with a discontinuous band of darker material running along the equator. Charon has a dark polar region, and there are indications of brightness variations at lower latitudes.

This movie, from New Horizons’ highest-resolution imager, shows Pluto and Charon as the spacecraft closes in. In the annotated version, Pluto’s prime meridian (the region of the planet that faces Charon) is shown in yellow and the equator is shown in pink.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

“Alice” Instrument Practices for Sunset and Sunrise Observations of Pluto’s Atmosphere

The location of the Alice ultraviolet imaging spectrograph on the New Horizons spacecraft is indicated.

Credits: Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This is how the Sun looked in ultraviolet light to NASA’s SOHO spacecraft on June 16, 2015, when New Horizons observed the Sun at similar ultraviolet wavelengths.

Credits: NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft has made a critical observation in preparation for its upcoming observations of Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere. Just hours after its flyby of Pluto on July 14, the spacecraft will observe sunlight passing through the planet’s atmosphere, to help scientists determine the atmosphere’s composition. “It will be as if Pluto were illuminated from behind by a trillion-watt light bulb,” said Randy Gladstone, a New Horizons scientist from Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio. on June 16, New Horizons’ Alice ultraviolet imaging spectrograph successfully performed a test observation of the sun from 3.1 billion miles away (5 billion kilometers), which will be used to interpret the July 14 observations.

This spectrum of the Sun obtained by New Horizons’ Alice instrument on June 16, 2015, will be used to interpret the spacecraft’s upcoming observations of Pluto’s atmosphere.

Credits: Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons is now less than 11 million miles (18 million kilometers) from the Pluto system. The spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally. 

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

To view images from New Horizons and learn more about the mission visit: http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons and http://pluto.jhuapl.edu

Follow the New Horizons mission on social media, and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. The mission’s official NASA Twitter account is @NASANewHorizons. Live updates will be available on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/new.horizons1

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Lillian Gipson

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

July 1, 2015

New Horizons ‘Speeds Up’ on Final Approach to Pluto

In the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, flight controllers (from left) Chris Regan and Becca Sepan monitor data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on June 30, after a short course-correction maneuver refined New Horizons path toward a flyby of Pluto on July 14.

With just two weeks to go before its historic July 14 flight past Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft tapped the accelerator late last night and tweaked its path toward the Pluto system.

In the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman and operations team member Karl Whittenburg watch for data confirming that the Pluto-bound NASA spacecraft successfully executed a course correction maneuver on June 30.

The 23-second thruster burst was the third and final planned targeting maneuver of New Horizons’ approach phase to Pluto; it was also the smallest of the nine course corrections since New Horizons launched in January 2006. It bumped the spacecraft’s velocity by just 27 centimeters per second – about  one-half mile per hour – slightly adjusting its arrival time and position at a flyby close-approach target point approximately 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface.

While it may appear to be a minute adjustment for a spacecraft moving 32,500 miles per hour, the impact is significant. New Horizons Mission Design Lead Yanping Guo, of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, says without the adjustment, New Horizons would have arrived 20 seconds late and 114 miles (184 kilometers) off-target from the spot where it will measure the properties of Pluto’s atmosphere. Those measurements depend on radio signals being sent from Earth to New Horizons at precise times as the spacecraft flies through the shadows of Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

In fact, timing and accuracy are critical for all New Horizons flyby observations, since those commands are stored in the spacecraft’s computers and programmed to “execute” at exact times.

This latest shift was based on radio-tracking data on the spacecraft and range-to-Pluto measurements made by optical-navigation imaging of the Pluto system taken by New Horizons in recent weeks. Using commands transmitted to the spacecraft on June 28, the thrusters began firing at 11:01 p.m. EDT on June 29 and stopped 23 seconds later. Telemetry indicating the spacecraft was healthy and that the maneuver went as designed began reaching the New Horizons Mission Operations Center at APL, through NASA’s Deep Space Network at 5:30 a.m. EDT on June 30.

“We are really on the final path,” said New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain, of APL. “It just gets better and more exciting every day.” 

“This maneuver was perfectly performed by the spacecraft and its operations team,” added mission principal investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “Now we’re set to fly right down the middle of the optimal approach corridor.”

New Horizons is now about 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) from the Pluto system – some 2.95 billion miles (4.75 billion kilometers) from Earth.

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Lillian Gipson

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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Pluto

June 24, 2015

New Horizons Approaches During Anniversary of Charon’s Discovery

Charon emerged from Pluto’s shadow when U.S. Naval Observatory astronomer James W. Christy, working with colleague Robert Harrington, discovered it on June 22, 1978.

The Ralph imager on New Horizons took the first color image, seen here, of Pluto and Charon on April 9, 2015. Clearly visible are Pluto and Texas-sized Charon, the smaller dot.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto was discovered in 1930, but the icy world’s large companion remained hidden for 48 more years due to the close proximity of the pair, which made them appear to blur together in observations. Charon and Pluto are separated by about 12,000 miles, with Charon measuring about 790 miles in diameter– slightly more than half Pluto’s size. Scientists sometimes refer to the objects as a “double planet” due to their sizes and close proximity. Christy noticed that Pluto looked elongated in images, as if a blur moved around the planet at a rate of about 6.4 days, the time it takes Charon and Pluto to complete their “pas de deux” rotation about their common center of gravity. Christy studied archives of images of Pluto, which confirmed he had found Pluto’s first moon.

Charon’s anniversary comes as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft makes its approach to the Pluto system. The spacecraft’s closest approach to within 7,750 miles of Pluto and 17,900 miles of Charon will occur on July 14, 2015, when scientists hope it will snap photos clear enough to depict surface objects on Pluto as small as 200 feet across. That is smaller than the length of a 747 jet.

New Horizons took the first color image of Pluto and Charon on April 9, 2015. The Ralph color imager made the image from a distance of about 71 million miles. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, contributed Ralph’s spectral imager, the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array, known as LEISA.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, manages and operates the mission for NASA.

For more information about the New Horizons mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons

Ashley Morrow
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Ashley Morrow

Tags:  Goddard Space Flight Center, New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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Pluto

June 23, 2015

New from NASA's New Horizons: Increasing Variety on Pluto's Close Approach Hemisphere, and a 'Dark Pole' on Charon

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft doesn’t pass Pluto until July 14 – but the mission team is making new discoveries as the piano-sized probe bears down on the Pluto system.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sees Pluto and Charon in this video released on June 22, 2015. New Horizons is set to make its closest approach to the Pluto on July 14.

Credits: NASA

In a long series of images obtained by New Horizons’ telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) May 29-June 19, Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, appear to more than double in size. From this rapidly improving imagery, scientists on the New Horizons team have found that the “close approach hemisphere” on Pluto that New Horizons will fly over has the greatest variety of terrain types seen on the planet so far. They have also discovered that Charon has a “dark pole” – a mysterious dark region that forms a kind of anti-polar cap.

"This system is just amazing," said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "The science team is just ecstatic with what we see on Pluto’s close approach hemisphere: Every terrain type we see on the planet—including both the brightest and darkest surface areas —are represented there, it’s a wonderland!

"And about Charon—wow—I don’t think anyone expected Charon to reveal a mystery like dark terrains at its pole," he continued. "Who ordered that?"

These images, taken by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show numerous large-scale features on Pluto's surface. When various large, dark and bright regions appear near limbs, they give Pluto a distinct, but false, non-spherical appearance. Pluto is known to be almost perfectly spherical from previous data. These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons scientists use a technique called deconvolution to sharpen the raw, unprocessed pictures that the spacecraft beams back to Earth; the contrast in these latest images has also been stretched to bring out additional details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce artifacts, so the team will be carefully reviewing newer images taken from closer range to determine whether some of the tantalizing details seen in these images persist. Pluto’s non-spherical appearance in these images is not real; it results from a combination of the image-processing technique and Pluto’s large variations in surface brightness.

"The unambiguous detection of bright and dark terrain units on both Pluto and Charon indicates a wide range of diverse landscapes across the pair," said science team co-investigator and imaging lead Jeff Moore, of NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California. “For example, the bright fringe we see on Pluto may represent frost deposited from an evaporating polar cap, which is now in summer sun.”

These recent images show the discovery of significant surface details on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. They were taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on June 18, 2015. The image on the left is the original image, displayed at four times the native LORRI image size. After applying a technique that sharpens an image called deconvolution, details become visible on Charon, including a distinct dark pole. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce "false" details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons is approximately 2.9 billion miles (4.7 billion kilometers) from Earth and just 16 million miles (25 million kilometers) from Pluto. The spacecraft and payload are in good health and operating normally.   

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Tricia Talbert

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto,

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Pluto

June 12, 2015

Different Faces of Pluto Emerging in New Images from New Horizons

The surface of Pluto is becoming better resolved as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft speeds closer to its July flight through the Pluto system. 

A series of new images obtained by the spacecraft’s telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) during May 29-June 2 show Pluto is a complex world with very bright and very dark terrain, and areas of intermediate brightness in between. These images afford the best views ever obtained of the Pluto system. 

New Horizons scientists used a technique called deconvolution to sharpen the raw, unprocessed pictures that the spacecraft beams back to Earth; the contrast in these latest images has also been stretched to bring out additional details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce artifacts, so the team will be carefully reviewing newer images taken from closer range to determine whether some of the tantalizing details seen in the images released today persist. Pluto’s non-spherical appearance in these images is not real; it results from a combination of the image-processing technique and Pluto’s large variations in surface brightness. 

Since April, deconvolved images from New Horizons have allowed the science team to identify a wide variety of broad surface markings across Pluto, including the bright area at one pole that scientists believe is a polar cap. 

“Even though the latest images were made from more than 30 million miles away, they show an increasingly complex surface with clear evidence of discrete equatorial bright and dark regions—some that may also have variations in brightness,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “We can also see that every face of Pluto is different and that Pluto’s northern hemisphere displays substantial dark terrains, though both Pluto’s darkest and its brightest known terrain units are just south of, or on, its equator. Why this is so is an emerging puzzle.”

“We’re squeezing as much information as we can out of these images, and seeing details we’ve never seen before,” said New Horizons Project Scientists Hal Weaver, from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “We’ve seen evidence of light and dark spots in Hubble Space Telescope images and in previous New Horizons pictures, but these new images indicate an increasingly complex and nuanced surface. Now, we want to start to learn more about what these various surface units might be and what’s causing them. By early July we will have spectroscopic data to help pinpoint that.”

New Horizons is approximately 2.9 billion miles (4.7 billion kilometers) from Earth and just 24 million miles (39 million kilometers) from Pluto. The spacecraft and payload are in good health and operating normally.
 

These images, taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show four different “faces” of Pluto as it rotates about its axis with a period of 6.4 days. All the images have been rotated to align Pluto's rotational axis with the vertical direction (up-down) on the figure, as depicted schematically in the upper left.From left to right, the images were taken when Pluto’s central longitude was 17, 63, 130, and 243 degrees, respectively. The date of each image, the distance of the New Horizons spacecraft from Pluto, and the number of days until Pluto closest approach are all indicated in the figure.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

These images show dramatic variations in Pluto's surface features as it rotates. When a very large, dark region near Pluto’s equator appears near the limb, it gives Pluto a distinctly, but false, non-spherical appearance. Pluto is known to be almost perfectly spherical from previous data.

Credits: : NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce "false" details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks. All of the images are displayed using the same brightness scale.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

 

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Tricia Talbert

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto,

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Pluto

June 5, 2015

NASA Lets You Experience “Pluto Time” with New Custom Tool

Just how dim is the sunlight on Pluto, some three billion miles away?  While sunlight is much weaker than it is here on Earth, it isn’t as dark as you might expect. In fact, for just a moment during dawn and dusk each day, the illumination on Earth matches that of high noon on Pluto.

We call this “Pluto Time”. If you go outside at this time on a clear day, the world around you will be as dim as the surface of Pluto.

It’s always Pluto Time somewhere, and NASA wants to see your view, using a new interactive widget that provides the approximate time, based on your location. The tool also allows you to set reminders for upcoming Pluto Times.

Go out and see what Pluto Time looks like! Take a photo during your Pluto Time – preferably with a local landmark – and share it on social media with #PlutoTime. We’ll highlight some of the most interesting shots from around the world and combine your photos into a mosaic image of Pluto and its moons to be unveiled in August.

Once you’ve experienced Pluto Time – yourself or with friends and family – join NASA in counting down the days to New Horizons’ historic flyby of Pluto and its moons.

Following a more than nine-year journey, New Horizons will pass approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface, reaching its closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, July 14.

The New Horizons mission is the first in NASA’s New Frontiers program and the first mission to the Kuiper Belt, a gigantic zone of icy bodies and small planets orbiting beyond Neptune. The lightweight New Horizons spacecraft will zip through the Pluto system at more than 30,000 mph (about 50,000 km/h) with the most powerful suite of science instruments ever sent on a first reconnaissance mission.

For more information, sample photos, and to experience Pluto Time for yourself, go to:

http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/plutotime

Photos from NASA Solar System Ambassadors illustrate Pluto Time around the country, from the NASA Solar System Exploration photostream on flickr.

Credits: NASA

Banner Image:  Artist’s impression of how the surface of Pluto might look near midday. Credit: SwRI/Alex H. Parker

 

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Tricia Talbert

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

June 3, 2015

Listen to an Interview with the Girl who Named Pluto

Venetia Burney Phair at age 11.

Credits: Venetia Burney Phair (Courtesy of the BBC)

Venetia Burney Phair was an accountant and taught economics and math to school girls. But the British woman will best be remembered for what she accomplished at age 11, giving Pluto its name.

In an interview with NASA in January 2006, Phair said she offered the name Pluto over breakfast with her mother and grandfather. It was March 14, 1930, and her grandfather, Falconer Madan, announced that scientists discovered the ninth planet.

Listen to the interview with Venetia Burney Phair.

Read the transcript of the interview with Venetia Burney Phair

"I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children's books that I had read," she said in the interview. "And of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn't been used."

Madan, a retired librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, liked the name, too, and passed it along to his friend, Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford.

Related
› Pluto-Bound Science Instrument Renamed for Venetia Burney Phair

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: NASA Administrator

Tags:  NASA History, New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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Pluto  May 28, 2015NASA’s New Horizons Sees More Detail as It Draws Closer to Pluto

What a difference 20 million miles makes! Images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are growing in scale as the spacecraft approaches its mysterious target. The new images, taken May 8-12 using a powerful telescopic camera and downlinked last week, reveal more detail about Pluto’s complex and high contrast surface. 

These images show Pluto in the latest series of New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) photos, taken May 8-12, 2015, compared to LORRI images taken one month earlier. In the month between these image sets, New Horizons’ distance to Pluto decreased from 68 million miles (110 million kilometers) to 47 million miles (75 million kilometers), as the spacecraft speeds toward a close encounter with the Pluto system in mid-July. The April images are shown on the left, with the May images on the right. All have been rotated to align Pluto’s rotational axis with the vertical direction (up-down), as depicted schematically in the center panel. Between April and May, Pluto appears to get larger as the spacecraft gets closer, with Pluto’s apparent size increasing by approximately 50 percent. Pluto rotates around its axis every 6.4 Earth days, and these images show the variations in Pluto’s surface features during its rotation. These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto. Deconvolution can occasionally add “false” details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks. All of the images are displayed using the same linear brightness scale.

The images were taken from just under 50 million miles (77 million kilometers) away, using the  Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons. Because New Horizons was approximately 20 million miles closer to Pluto in mid-May than in mid-April, the new images contain about twice as many pixels on the object as images made in mid-April.

A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed pictures beamed back to Earth. In the April images, New Horizons scientists determined that Pluto has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap. The newer imagery released here shows finer details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce spurious details, so the finest details in these images will need confirmation from images to be made from closer range in coming weeks.

"As New Horizons closes in on Pluto, it's transforming from a point of light to a planetary object of intense interest," said NASA's Director of Planetary Science Jim Green. "We're in for an exciting ride for the next seven weeks." 
   
“These new images show us that Pluto’s differing faces are each distinct; likely hinting at what may be very complex surface geology or variations in surface composition from place to place,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These images also continue to support the hypothesis that Pluto has a polar cap whose extent varies with longitude; we’ll be able to make a definitive determination of the polar bright region’s iciness when we get compositional spectroscopy of that region in July.” 

The images New Horizons returns will dramatically improve in coming weeks as the spacecraft speeds closer to its July 14 encounter with the Pluto system, covering about 750,000 miles per day.

“By late June the image resolution will be four times better than the images made May 8-12, and by the time of closest approach, we expect to obtain images with more than 5,000 times the current resolution,” said Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. 

Following a January 2006 launch, New Horizons is currently about 2.95 billion miles from home; the spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally. 

APL designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Tricia Talbert

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto,

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New Horizons

April 30, 2015

New Horizons Sees Pluto and Charon

This series of New Horizons images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken at 13 different times spanning 6.5 days, starting on April 12 and ending on April 18, 2015. During that time, the NASA spacecraft's distance from Pluto decreased from about 69 million miles (111 million kilometers) to 64 million miles (104 million kilometers). 

The pictures were taken with the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI. Pluto and Charon rotate around a center-of-mass (also called the "barycenter") once every 6.4 Earth days, and these LORRI images capture one complete rotation of the system.

In the annotated version, a 3x-magnified view of Pluto is displayed in the inset to the lower right, highlighting the changing brightness across the disk of Pluto as it rotates. Because Pluto is tipped on its side (like Uranus), when observing Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft, one primarily sees one pole of Pluto, which appears to be brighter than the rest of the disk in all the images. Scientists suggest this brightening in Pluto's polar region might be caused by a "cap" of highly reflective snow on the surface. The "snow" in this case is likely to be frozen molecular nitrogen ice. New Horizons observations in July will determine definitively whether or not this hypothesis is correct.

In addition to the polar cap, these images reveal changing brightness patterns from place to place as Pluto rotates, presumably caused by large-scale dark and bright patches at different longitudes on Pluto's surface. In all of these images, a mathematical technique called "deconvolution" is used to improve the resolution of the raw LORRI images, restoring nearly the full resolution allowed by the camera's optics and detector.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute


 

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Jim Wilson

Tags:  Dwarf Planets, New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

April 30, 2015

15-078

NASA’s New Horizons Detects Surface Features, Possible Polar Cap on Pluto

This image of Pluto and it largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on April 15, 2015. The image is part of several taken between April 12-18, as the spacecraft’s distance from Pluto decreased from about 69 million miles (111 million kilometers) to 64 million miles (104 million kilometers).

Credits: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

For the first time, images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are revealing bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto – the primary target of the New Horizons close flyby in mid-July.

The images were captured in early to mid-April from within 70 million miles (113 million kilometers), using the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed images beamed back to Earth. New Horizons scientists interpreted the data to reveal the dwarf planet has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap.

“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons."

Also captured in the images is Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit. The exposure times used to create this image set – a tenth of a second – were too short for the camera to detect Pluto’s four much smaller and fainter moons.

Since it was discovered in 1930, Pluto has remained an enigma. It orbits our sun more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) from Earth, and researchers have struggled to discern any details about its surface. These latest New Horizons images allow the mission science team to detect clear differences in brightness across Pluto’s surface as it rotates.

“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”

The images the spacecraft returns will dramatically improve as New Horizons speeds closer to its July rendezvous with Pluto.

“We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer,” said Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

APL designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

To view images from New Horizons and learn more about the mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons

-end-

Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

Michael Buckley
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
240-228-7536
michael.buckley@jhuapl.edu

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Karen Northon

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

April 29, 2015

NASA's New Horizons Detects Pluto Surface Features, Including Possible Polar Cap

Features from Deep Space
 



These "movies" show a series of New Horizons images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, taken at 13 different times spanning 6.5 days, starting on April 12 and ending on April 18, 2015. During that time, the NASA spacecraft's distance from Pluto decreased from about 69 million miles (111 million kilometers) to 64 million miles (104 million kilometers). 

The pictures were taken with the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI. Pluto and Charon rotate around a center-of-mass (also called the "barycenter") once every 6.4 Earth days, and these LORRI images capture one complete rotation of the system. The direction of the rotation axis is shown in the figure. In one of these movies, the center of Pluto is kept fixed in the frame, while the other movie is fixed on the center of mass (accounting for the "wobble" in the system as Charon orbits Pluto).

In the annotated versions of the movies, a 3x-magnified view of Pluto is displayed in the inset to the lower right, highlighting the changing brightness across the disk of Pluto as it rotates. Because Pluto is tipped on its side (like Uranus), when observing Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft, one primarily sees one pole of Pluto, which appears to be brighter than the rest of the disk in all the images. Scientists suggest this brightening in Pluto's polar region might be caused by a "cap" of highly reflective snow on the surface. The "snow" in this case is likely to be frozen molecular nitrogen ice. New Horizons observations in July will determine definitively whether or not this hypothesis is correct.

In addition to the polar cap, these images reveal changing brightness patterns from place to place as Pluto rotates, presumably caused by large-scale dark and bright patches at different longitudes on Pluto's surface. In all of these images, a mathematical technique called "deconvolution" is used to improve the resolution of the raw LORRI images, restoring nearly the full resolution allowed by the camera's optics and detector.

 


 

LORRI Images from the Pluto Encounter

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Tricia Talbert

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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Pluto

April 15, 2015

15-064

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Nears Historic July 14 Encounter with Pluto

This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard New Horizons on April 9, 2015, from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers). It is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach.

Credits: NASA

More Briefing Materials

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is three months from returning to humanity the first-ever close up images and scientific observations of distant Pluto and its system of large and small moons.

"Scientific literature is filled with papers on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from ground based and Earth orbiting space observations, but we’ve never studied Pluto up close and personal,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut, and associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington.  “In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto systems is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries."  

The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons has traveled a longer time and farther away – more than nine years and three billion miles – than any space mission in history to reach its primary target. Its flyby of Pluto and its system of at least five moons on July 14 will complete the initial reconnaissance of the classical solar system. This mission also opens the door to an entirely new “third” zone of mysterious small planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt, a large area with numerous objects beyond Neptune’s orbit.

The flyby caps a five-decade-long era of reconnaissance that began with Venus and Mars in the early 1960s, and continued through first looks at Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s and Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.

Reaching this third zone of our solar system – beyond the inner, rocky planets and outer gas giants – has been a space science priority for years. In the early 2000s the National Academy of Sciences ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – and particularly Pluto and its largest moon, Charon – as its top priority planetary mission for the coming decade.

New Horizons – a compact, lightweight, powerfully equipped probe packing the most advanced suite of cameras and spectrometers ever sent on a first reconnaissance mission – is NASA’s answer to that call.

“This is pure exploration; we’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “New Horizons is flying to Pluto – the biggest, brightest and most complex of the dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. This 21st century encounter is going to be an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s.”

Pluto, the largest known body in the Kuiper Belt, offers a nitrogen atmosphere, complex seasons, distinct surface markings, an ice-rock interior that may harbor an ocean, and at least five moons. Among these moons, the largest – Charon - may itself sport an atmosphere or an interior ocean, and possibly even evidence of recent surface activity.

“There’s no doubt, Charon is a rising star in terms of scientific interest, and we can’t wait to reveal it in detail in July,” said Leslie Young, deputy project scientist at SwRI.

Pluto’s smaller moons also are likely to present scientific opportunities. When New Horizons was started in 2001, it was a mission to just Pluto and Charon, before the four smaller moons were discovered.

The spacecraft’s suite of seven science instruments – which includes cameras, spectrometers, and plasma and dust detectors – will map the geology of Pluto and Charon and map their surface compositions and temperatures; examine Pluto’s atmosphere, and search for an atmosphere around Charon; study Pluto’s smaller satellites; and look for rings and additional satellites around Pluto.

Currently, even with New Horizons closer to Pluto than the Earth is to the Sun, the Pluto system resembles little more than bright dots in the distance. But teams operating the spacecraft are using these views to refine their knowledge of Pluto’s location, and skillfully navigate New Horizons toward a precise target point 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) from Pluto’s surface. That targeting is critical, since the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point its science instruments are based on knowing the exact time and location that New Horizons passes Pluto.

“Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we know we have just one shot to make this work,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, which built and operates the spacecraft. “We’ve plotted out each step of the Pluto encounter, practiced it over and over, and we’re excited the ‘real deal’ is finally here.”

The spacecraft’s work doesn’t end with the July flyby. Because it gets one shot at its target, New Horizons is designed to gather as much data as it can, as quickly as it can, taking about 100 times as much data on close approach as it can send home before flying away. And although the spacecraft will send select, high-priority datasets home in the days just before and after close approach, the mission will continue returning the data stored in onboard memory for a full 16 months.

“New Horizons is one of the great explorations of our time,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver at APL. “There’s so much we don’t know, not just about Pluto, but other worlds like it. We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch.”

APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern of SwRI is the principal investigator. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

For more information on New Horizons, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons

and

http://pluto.jhuapl.edu

-end-

Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

Michael Buckley
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
240-228-7536
michael.buckley@jhuapl.edu

Maria Stothoff
Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio
210-522-3305
maria.stothoff@swri.org

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Karen Northon

Tags:  Dwarf Planets, New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

Feb. 18, 2015

85 Years after Pluto’s Discovery, NASA’s New Horizons Spots Small Moons Orbiting Pluto

The long-exposure images offer New Horizons’ best view yet of these two small moons circling Pluto which Tombaugh discovered at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Feb. 18, 1930.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University APL/Southwest Research Institute.

Exactly 85 years after Clyde Tombaugh’s historic discovery of Pluto, the NASA spacecraft set to encounter the icy dwarf planet this summer is providing its first views of the small moons orbiting Pluto. 

The moons Nix and Hydra are visible in a series of images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft from Jan. 27-Feb. 8, at distances ranging from about 125 million to 115 million miles (201 million to 186 million kilometers). The long-exposure images offer New Horizons’ best view yet of these two small moons circling Pluto which Tombaugh discovered at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Feb. 18, 1930.

“Professor Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto was far ahead its time, heralding the discovery of the Kuiper Belt and a new class of planet,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “The New Horizons team salutes his historic accomplishment.” 

Assembled into a seven-frame movie, the new images provide the spacecraft’s first extended look at Hydra (identified by a yellow diamond ) and its first-ever view of Nix (orange diamond).

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute

Assembled into a seven-frame movie, the new images provide the spacecraft’s first extended look at Hydra (identified by a yellow diamond ) and its first-ever view of Nix (orange diamond). The right-hand image set has been specially processed to make the small moons easier to see. “It’s thrilling to watch the details of the Pluto system emerge as we close the distance to the spacecraft’s July 14 encounter,” says New Horizons science team member John Spencer, also from Southwest Research Institute. “This first good view of Nix and Hydra marks another major milestone, and a perfect way to celebrate the anniversary of Pluto’s discovery.”

These are the first of a series of long-exposure images that will continue through early March, with the purpose of refining the team’s knowledge of the moons’ orbits. Each frame is a combination of five 10-second images, taken with New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) using a special mode that combines pixels to increase sensitivity at the expense of resolution. At left, Nix and Hydra are just visible against the glare of Pluto and its large moon Charon, and the dense field of background stars. The bright and dark streak extending to the right of Pluto is an artifact of the camera electronics, resulting from the overexposure of Pluto and Charon. As can be seen in the movie, the spacecraft and camera were rotated in some of the images to change the direction of this streak, in order to prevent it from obscuring the two moons. 

The right-hand images have been processed to remove most of Pluto and Charon’s glare, and most of the background stars. The processing leaves blotchy and streaky artifacts in the images, and also leaves a few other residual bright spots that are not real features, but makes Nix and Hydra much easier to see. Celestial north is inclined 28 degrees clockwise from the “up” direction in these images.

Nix and Hydra were discovered by New Horizons team members in Hubble Space Telescope images taken in 2005. Hydra, Pluto’s outermost known moon, orbits Pluto every 38 days at a distance of approximately 40,200 miles (64,700 km), while Nix orbits every 25 days at a distance of 30,260 miles (48,700 km). Each moon is probably between 25-95 miles (approximately 40- 150 kilometers) in diameter, but scientists won’t know their sizes more precisely until New Horizons obtains close-up pictures of both of them in July. Pluto’s two other small moons, Styx and Kerberos, are still smaller and too faint to be seen by New Horizons at its current range to Pluto; they will become visible in the months to come.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Tricia Talbert

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

Feb. 12, 2015

The View from New Horizons: A Full Day on Pluto-Charon

This time-lapse “movie” of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was recently shot at record-setting distances with the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

Credits: NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute

This time-lapse “movie” of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was recently shot at record-setting distances with the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The movie was made over about a week, from Jan. 25-31, 2015. It was taken as part of the mission’s second optical navigation (“OpNav”) campaign to better refine the locations of Pluto and Charon in preparation for the spacecraft’s close encounter with the small planet and its five moons on July 14, 2015.

Pluto and Charon were observed for an entire rotation of each body; a “day” on Pluto and Charon is 6.4 Earth days. The first of the images was taken when New Horizons was about 3 billion miles from Earth, but just 126 million miles (203 million kilometers) from Pluto—about 30% farther than Earth’s distance from the Sun. The last frame came 6½ days later, with New Horizons more than 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) closer.

The wobble easily visible in Pluto’s motion, as Charon orbits, is due to the gravity of Charon, about one-eighth as massive as Pluto and about the size of Texas.

Faint stars can be seen in background of these images. Each frame had an exposure time of one-tenth of a second, too short to see Pluto’s smaller, much fainter moons. New Horizons is still too far from Pluto and its moons to resolve surface features.  

This close up look at Pluto and Charon.

Credits: NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute

The Pluto-Charon Dance: This close up look at Pluto and Charon, taken as part of the mission’s latest optical navigation (“OpNav”) campaign from Jan. 25-31, 2015, comes from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on NASA;s New Horizons spacecraft.

The time-lapse frames in this movie were magnified four times to make it easier to see Pluto and Charon orbit around their barycenter, a mutual point above Pluto’s surface where Pluto and Charon’s gravity cancels out – this is why Pluto appears to “wobble” in space. Charon orbits approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface.

Each frame had an exposure time of one-tenth of a second, too short to see Pluto’s smaller, much fainter moons.

"These images allow the New Horizons navigators to refine the positions of Pluto and Charon, and they have the additional benefit of allowing the mission scientists to study the variations in brightness of Pluto and Charon as they rotate, providing a preview of what to expect during the close encounter in July," says Alan Stern, the New Horizons principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Tricia Talbert

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

Feb. 4, 2015

15-018

NASA Spacecraft Returns New Images of Pluto En Route to Historic Encounter

The image of Pluto and its moon Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, was magnified four times to make the objects more visible. Over the next several months, the apparent sizes of Pluto and Charon, as well as the separation between them, will continue to expand in the images.

Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft returned its first new images of Pluto on Wednesday, as the probe closes in on the dwarf planet. Although still just a dot along with its largest moon, Charon, the images come on the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the distant icy world in 1930.

My dad would be thrilled with New Horizons,” said Clyde Tombaugh’s daughter Annette Tombaugh, of Las Cruces, New Mexico. “To actually see the planet that he had discovered, and find out more about it -- to get to see the moons of Pluto-- he would have been astounded. I'm sure it would have meant so much to him if he were still alive today.”

New Horizons was more than 126 million miles (nearly 203 million kilometers) away from Pluto when it began taking images. The new images, taken with New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, are the first acquired during the spacecraft’s 2015 approach to the Pluto system, which culminates with a close flyby of Pluto and its moons on July 14.

“This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honor of his discovery and life achievements -- which truly became a harbinger of 21st century planetary astronomy,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “These images of Pluto, clearly brighter and closer than those New Horizons took last July from twice as far away, represent our first steps at turning the pinpoint of light Clyde saw in the telescopes at Lowell Observatory 85 years ago, into a planet before the eyes of the world this summer.”

Over the next few months, LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto, against a starry backdrop, to refine the team’s estimates of New Horizons’ distance to Pluto. As in these first images, the Pluto system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until late spring. However, mission navigators can still use such images to design course-correcting engine maneuvers to direct the spacecraft for a more precise approach. The first such maneuver based on these optical navigation images, or OpNavs, is scheduled for March 10.

“Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.  “LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and the dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets. The new LORRI images also demonstrate that the camera’s performance is unchanged since it was launched more than nine years ago.”

Closing in on Pluto at about 31,000 mph, New Horizons already has covered more than 3 billion miles since it launched on Jan. 19, 2006. Its journey has taken it past each planet’s orbit, from Mars to Neptune, in record time, and it is now in the first stage of an encounter with Pluto that includes long-distance imaging as well as dust, energetic particle and solar wind measurements to characterize the space environment near Pluto.

“The U.S. has led the exploration of the planets and continues to do so with New Horizons,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This mission will obtain images to map Pluto and its moons better than has ever been achieved by any previous planetary mission.”

APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of SwRI, is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

To view the Pluto image online and see the mission timeline for upcoming images, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons

and

http://pluto.jhuapl.edu

-end-

Dwayne Brown
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

Michael Buckley
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
240-228-7536
michael.buckley@jhuapl.edu

Maria Stothoff
Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio
210-522-3305
maria.stothoff@swri.org

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: Karen Northon

Tags:  New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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New Horizons

March 24, 2008

Pluto: Past and Future

American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, the ninth planet in our solar system, on February 18, 1930. Many key questions about Pluto, it's moon Charon, and the outer fringes of our solar system await close-up observations.

A proposed NASA mission called New Horizons, depicted in the artist's concept above, would use miniature cameras, radio science experiments, ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers and space plasma experiments to study Pluto and Charon, map their surface compositions and temperatures, and examine Pluto's atmosphere in detail.

Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
 

Last Updated: July 5, 2015

Editor: NASA Administrator

Tags:  Dwarf Planets, New Horizons, Pluto, Solar System,

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