July 02, 2015

Best ever images of Pluto and Charon show unusual dark spots

The closest-ever pictures of Pluto and its moon Charon shows two separate hemispheres in color. There are unknown dark spots that look like pepperoni slices. New Horizons is now less than 9.5 million miles (15 million kilometers) from the Pluto system. The spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally.

On May 15, 2015, New Horizons‍ '​ imaging resolution of Pluto exceeded Hubble's, which will last until two months after the flyby. From the May date forward on approach the probe should be able to detect any rings or any additional moons (eventually down to 2 km diameter), for avoidance and targeting maneuvers, and observation scheduling. New Horizons‍ '​ best spatial resolution of the small satellites is 460 meters / pixel at Nix, 1.1 km / pixel at Hydra, 3.2 km / pixel at Kerberos, and 3.2 km / pixel at Styx. Estimates for the diameters of these bodies (assuming albedo 0.35) are: Hydra, 61 to 167 km (38 to 104 mi.); Nix, 46 to 137 km (29 to 85 mi.); Kerberos, 13 to 34 km (8 to 21 mi.); and Styx, 10 to 25 km (6 to 16 mi.). This translates to a minimum of 55, 100, 4, and 3 pixels in width for Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx, respectively.

New Horizons is intended to pass within 10,000 km (6,200 mi) of Pluto, with this closest approach date estimated to occur on July 14, 2015 at 11:50 UTC. New Horizons will have a relative velocity of 13.78 km / s (49,600 km / h; 30,800 mph) at its closest approach, and will come as close as 27,000 km (17,000 mi) to Charon, although these parameters may be changed during flight. Starting 3.2 days before the closest approach, long-range imaging will include the mapping of Pluto and Charon to 40 km (25 mi) resolution. This is half the rotation period of the Pluto–Charon system and will allow imaging of all sides of both bodies. Coverage will repeat twice per day, to search for changes due to snows or cryovolcanism.

For more than two decades, planetary scientists have raced to get a spacecraft to Pluto against predictions that its atmosphere would disappear—literally freezing onto the surface—before it could be explored. This week, planetary scientists using ground-based telescopes and NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory confirmed that “Pluto’s atmosphere is alive and well, and has not frozen out on the surface,” according to New Horizons deputy project scientist Leslie Young, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. Added Young, “We’re delighted!”

“The SOFIA observations will also be essential for linking ground-based studies to the results from the New Horizons Pluto encounter for decades to come”, said Cathy Olkin, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission.

For more than two decades, planetary scientists have raced to get a spacecraft to Pluto against predictions that its atmosphere would disappear—literally freezing onto the surface—before it could be explored. This week, planetary scientists using ground-based telescopes and NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory confirmed that “Pluto’s atmosphere is alive and well, and has not frozen out on the surface,” according to New Horizons deputy project scientist Leslie Young, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. Added Young, “We’re delighted!”

“The SOFIA observations will also be essential for linking ground-based studies to the results from the New Horizons Pluto encounter for decades to come”, said Cathy Olkin, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission.

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, with a surface area that’s roughly the size of the state of Missouri.

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. “It’s a real puzzle—we don’t know what the spots are, and we can’t wait to find out,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. “Also puzzling is the longstanding and dramatic difference in the colors and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and grayer moon 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.





More New Horizons News for Wednesday, July 1:

Instruments Prepare to Search for Clouds in Pluto’s Atmosphere

If Pluto has clouds, New Horizons can detect them. Both the high-resolution LORRI imager and the Ralph color imager will be used to look for clouds across the face of Pluto during its approach and departure from the planet. “We’re looking for clouds in our images using a number of techniques,” said science team postdoc Kelsi Singer of the Southwest Research Institute, “If we find clouds, their presence will allow us to track the speeds and directions of Pluto’s winds.”


An artist’s conception of clouds in Pluto’s atmosphere. Credits: JHUAPL

New Horizons Team Says “Bravo!” To Earth-Based Pluto Observers

For more than two decades, planetary scientists have raced to get a spacecraft to Pluto against predictions that its atmosphere would disappear—literally freezing onto the surface—before it could be explored. This week, planetary scientists using ground-based telescopes and NASA’s SOFIA airborne observatory confirmed that “Pluto’s atmosphere is alive and well, and has not frozen out on the surface,” according to New Horizons deputy project scientist Leslie Young, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder. Added Young, “We’re delighted!”

“The SOFIA observations will also be essential for linking ground-based studies to the results from the New Horizons Pluto encounter for decades to come”, said Cathy Olkin, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission.

PEPSSI Instrument Tastes Pluto’s Atmosphere

The Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) instrument aboard New Horizons is sending back data daily, sampling the space environment near Pluto. PEPSSI is designed to detect ions (atoms that have lost or gained one or more electrons) that have escaped from Pluto’s atmosphere. As they depart, these atoms become caught up in the solar wind, the stream of subatomic particles that emanates from the Sun. PEPSSI’s job is to tell scientists about the composition of Pluto’s escaping atmosphere and how quickly the atmosphere is escaping.

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