Tag Archives: NASA New Horizons

Pluto Imagery Starting To Arrive

Pluto is a long way away, more than 4 light hours.

In July the NASA New Horizons spacecraft screamed by Pluto and moons, recording images as fast as possible. Since that time, the spacecraft has been transmitting the data back to Earth. At abut 2000 bits per second or less, It will take a year to download everything.

This month the first images from the closest encounter are arriving, and NASA has released some of the first ones.


Meanwhile, science results are emerging in articles and talks this fall. One analysis byt Alexander Trowbridge and coleagues suggests a liquid ammonia below the frozen surface. [1] This is consistent with suggestions that some of the visible features resemble volcanoes.

As many people are commenting, these findings from Pluto are part of the overall picture of a geologically active (if alien) solar system.


  1. Trowbridge, A. J., H. J. Melosh, and A. M. Freed, Vigorous Convection Underlies Pluto\rsquos Surface Activity, in AAS/Division for Planetary Sciences Meeting Abstracts. 2015. p. #102.01.


Space Saturday

NASA PR: Good And Bad Examples

Earlier this summer, the Dawn spacecraft observed some striking “bright spots” on Ceres. NASA made this into a PR game, challenging the public to vote on what these spots are (ice, salts, whatever).

This image, made using images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows Occator crater on Ceres, home to a collection of intriguing bright spots. The bright spots are much brighter than the rest of Ceres’ surface, and tend to appear overexposed in most images. This view is a composite of two images of Occator: one using a short exposure that captures the detail in the bright spots, and one where the background surface is captured at normal exposure. The images were obtained by Dawn during the mission’s High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase, from which the spacecraft imaged the surface at a resolution of about 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

OK, it’s not horrible to try to create interest in far off planetary science, even if it made no sense to guess from the monochrome images when the spacecraft was about to move lower and collect high resolution, multispectral data. (I.e.,, the correct answer was, “wait until we see the data”.)

That was in April, and Dawn has collected more data, including spectral data.

But NASA is still milking this “mystery”, releasing more detailed (but scientifically negligible) monochrome imagery and fancy animations, laying on the hokum, “Soon, the scientific analysis will reveal the geological and chemical nature of this mysterious and mesmerizing extraterrestrial scenery.” Soon?

My prediction is that there will be splashy press releases accompanying papers at the big conferences this fall (AGU in December and AAS in January for sure). That would be about normal for writing up important results.

I’m sure there will be results from Rosetta and New Horizon at those same conferences.

For comparison, I note a nice blog post by Carly Howett, “New Horizons Probes the Mystery of Charon’s Red Pole”. Without condescending, she walks through the question of the red appearance of Charon’s surface. She explains some exotic chemistry that can generate Thorin, a Nitrogen, Methane, and Carbon Monoxide ice, which she hypothesizes are the constituents of the deposits we observe on Charon.

But the story is far from complete or solidly supported, and she says, “This is one of the many things I am looking forward to better understanding as we receive more New Horizons data over the next year and analyze it in conjunction with continued laboratory work.”

To me, this keeps my interest far better than boneheaded public opinion “polls”. Science is about careful thinking, not about guessing.  And I really like getting insight about the thinking behind the hypotheses, which good science teachers do so well.


Space Saturday


Pluto Flyby, Comet Perihelion

The New Horizons probe flew by Pluto this week, as planned. “New Horizons had been instructed to spend the day gathering the maximum amount of data, and not communicating with Earth until it was beyond the Pluto system.

The few images from the navigation camera released so far aren’t extremely detailed. The real data will come later. In fact, it will take the rest of the year to return all the data collected Tuesday! That’s how far away, and how tiny the spacecraft and it’s radio are.

Congrats to the team, and let’s have some solid reports in the coming months.

The next cool thing will be Rosetta’s observations of 67P/CG as it sweeps through perihelion on 13 August. (Perihelion is actually not that close, about 1.24 AU—which is a good thing, otherwise I don’t think either the comet or Rosetta would survive for long.) This will be the first time we’ve been able to observe the surface and atmosphere of a comet as it passes through this dramatic lifecycle. Truly ground breaking science, whether or not there are photogenic images or not.

The orbit of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and its approximate location around perihelion, the closest the comet gets to the Sun. The positions of the planets are correct for 13 August 2015. Credit: ESA

Now that we have see the rugged and deeply fractured state of 67P/CG, we have to consider whether it might actually break up while Rosetta is watching. That might be cool to see, if possibly hazardous for the spacecraft.

Rosetta will continue to ride 67P/CG back out into the cold, returning data until at least September 2016 (the end of current funding). This will be an opportunity to observe the cooling and quieting of the comet, and to record “after” images to go with the “before” pictures from last year.

Out Ceres way (yet another good name for a band!), Dawn had a problem when it restarted the ion engine to move to the third, and lowest orbit. It is now still safely idling in the second orbit, being evaluated. We’ll see what happens—Dawn has performed incredibly well, and has been very robust. I expect that they’ll be able to reconfigure and proceed to the lower orbit, if later than originally planned.


Space Saturday

Surface Activity: Rosetta Mission Extended, NASA PR Work

ESA announced that the Rosetta mission has been officially extended by nine months, which will allow significant data collection after perihelion in August. This seems like a no brainer to me. I mean, if you go all the way out to 67P/CG, you want to collect data until you run out of sunlight, no? And you want to get as much before and after data as possible, right?

But this is the Extremely European SA, so there are carefully documented decision making processes.

The extended period will assure that Rosetta will have opportunity to move closer and get detailed imagery and measurements of the comet after perihelion. In particular, as 67P/CG moves away from the Sun, it will get cooler and the outgassing will end. This will allow Rosetta to orbit much lower without difficulty, and obtain higher resolution measurements. (Fingers crossed.)

The New Horizons is closing on Pluto, and there should be more and more imagery coming in the next three weeks. Stand by for planetary-scale hype!

Meanwhile, NASA PR is milking the “mysterious bright spots” on Ceres for all it’s worth. Despite weeks of observations, the NASA press releases are still teasing us with “is it ice or is it salt”. Sigh. At least they could tell us some details about what observations are being made, and how they will be evaluated to identify the bright material.



Space Saturday

Ceres Close Ups, and Waiting for Philae

In the solar system this week, the New Horizon probe is swooping in on Pluto, for a screaming flyby, with closest approach on 14 July. In the past month, the probe has seen several moons, albeit briefly.

Data from the New Horizon probe has been augmented by observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, which is obviously closer to Earth, but also way larger and more capable. This study has indicted that the smaller moons of Pluto / Charon have quite chaotic orbits around the twin planets. I guess that’s not too surprising, though I wonder if these moons are recent acquisitions. I mean, Pluto has been there a long time, so things should have settled down by now, no?  I expect we’ll learn more from the flyby.

Meanwhile, Rosetta is still looking for the little lost Philae lander. The Rosetta orbiter took imagery in December that should cover Philae’s location, but the lander has not been picked out. As the comet heats up, the gasses boiling off the comet have been too much for Rosetta’s navigation system, so the probe has not been able to swoop lower for closer looks.  (This is an interesting, if inconvenient finding that we’d never know without actually visiting a comet close up.)

In the coming weeks, the sunlight on 67P/CG will be increasing even more, and it is possible that Philae will be able to charge its batteries. If that happens, and the systems have survived months of extreme cold, then Philae will wake up and try to contact the Rosetta orbiter. Even if we don’t get any science, I think we all want the lander to wake up, and show us just how well it was built!

Out at Ceres, “deep into the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter”, the Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting and amassing images and measurements for the past month. Last week, Dawn completed a maneuver into a lower “survey orbit”, about 4400 KM altitude. It is recording and transmitting images from this second orbit, and later it will move lower still.

Dawn’s spiral descent from its first mapping orbit (RC3) to its second (survey). The two mapping orbits are shown in green. The color of Dawn’s trajectory progresses through the spectrum from blue, when it began ion-thrusting on May 9, to red, when ion-thrusting concludes on June 3. The red dashed sections show where Dawn is coasting, mostly for telecommunications. The first two coast periods include OpNav 8 and 9. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I would note that the Dawn team is rightly proud of their ion propulsion system, which has made possible this incredible feat.


Space Saturday

Space Probes Waiting for Summer

Space exploration certainly has a lot of “hurry up and wait” to it, no? Decades of slow travel, followed by frantic activity, followed by weeks and months of data crunching. It’s not the way Hollywood shows it!

This summer we are following three robot probes, “New Horizons” (closing in on Pluto for a dramatic flyby), “Rosetta” (riding comet 67P/CG around the sun), and “Dawn” (orbiting Ceres).

Lot’s will happen this summer.

New Horizon

We are waiting patiently for a 14 July Plutopalooza.  The imagery and data isn’t exciting yet, though we are getting the closest views ever, and finding moons.  I’m sure we’ll know a lot more real soon now.


Rosetta is clucking away, sucking in unprecedented close up data as 67P/CG heats up and spews gas. It is now just visible from Earth, showing the beginnings of the class comet tail we all love to see.

Comet 67P (center) with a visible tail taken at the TRAPPIST observatory in Chile on April 18, 2015. Image Credit: E. Jehin and Team.

(Amateurs are invited to participate and contribute in the ground observations.)

As a reminder of why the Rosetta expedition is significant can be seen by comparing the image above (a pretty good view from Earth) with the imagery from Rosetta, such as:

There really is no comparison.

And Rosetta is gathering lots of other data from many instruments.


As Dawn gets down to business, the current interest is the now famous bright spots. This week we have an even clearer image from NASA:

This image of Ceres is part of a sequence taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 16, 2015, from a distance of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

Dawn will collect more data and then move to a lower orbit and collect even better imagery.



Space Saturday



Following Our Space Probes: “Dawn” Approaches Ceres

The NASA spacecraft, “Dawn”, will enter first orbit around the asteroid/dwarf planet Ceres next week. Cool!

This week images were taken to, among other things, figure out exactly how Ceres rotates. I hadn’t thought about it, but if you want to survey a planetoid you want to use a polar orbit—which requires knowing where the darn poles are. Duh! And that isn’t easy to tell until you get close enough.

Once in orbit, Dawn will image the whole surface of Ceres in a range of frequencies. From the recent observation of unexplained bright patches, as well as earlier hints of water vapor, the team will be looking for evidence of a subsurface ocean. That would be kind of interesting.

By the way, NASA has released a 3D printable model of Vesta, mapped by the Dawn mission on its way to Ceres, and also a 3D printable model of the spacecraft itself.

There is also a 3D model for the “New Horizons” spacecraft closing in on Pluto, and a bunch of other models, all at: http://nasa3d.arc.nasa.gov/models/printable

Our other friends at ESA has posted an interesting discussion of the recent flyby, which was trickier than I realized. “Doing science during a close flyby like this is not easy,”

Meanwhile, at NASA posted a nice piece about the current activities of the New Horizons mission team as the spacecraft closes on Pluto.  This also sketches the geological studies that are planned.  (An earlier post explained the atmospheric studies.)