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NANO Day 4: Pluto Surprises and Web Surprises

Very early this morning, the following item caught my eye on twitter:

It linked to a Sky and Telescope article that offered ten things that surprised the Principle Investigator on the New Horizons probe. I liked it and shared it to Facebook. I was going to link to the article here and offer commentary on surprised/not surprised. But then the link surprised me by going to a 404 error. Sky and Telescope at least has a clever 404 message:

Sky and Telescope 404 message

“Whoops! – You’ve slewed to a target that’s below the horizon. Please wait while we redirect you to our site’s North Star. Slew Faster”

I reported the now broken URL to Sky and Telescope’s Twitter account, but didn’t want to wait to comment on surprises. So I went the main New Horizons web site at http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/ and found this summary of some of the things that surprised the New Horizons team:

New Horizons Team Publishes First Research Paper in Science, Describing Numerous Pluto System Findings

It has a few paragraphs that list some surprises:

“The data returned so far show a surprisingly wide variety of landforms and terrain ages on Pluto, as well as variations in color, composition and albedo (surface reflectivity). Team members also discovered evidence for a water-ice rich crust, multiple haze layers above the surface in Pluto’s atmosphere, and that Pluto is somewhat larger and a bit more ice rich than expected.

“The Pluto system surprised us in many ways, most notably teaching us that small planets can remain active billions of years after their formation,” said Stern, with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “We were also taught important lessons by the degree of geological complexity that both Pluto and its large moon Charon display.”

For me, the biggest surprise is the geological complexity of both Pluto and Charon. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was doctrine that worlds had to be of a certain size to have any geological activity at all after a short time following their formation. We were told that small bodies had no way of continued heating like the Earth, Venus and larger worlds. So they would grow cold and activity would stop – unless it got smacked by a really large asteroid whose kinetic energy partially melted the surface.

Then came the discoveries of Voyagers 1 and 2 – in particular the irrefutable proof of volcanoes on Io. Here was a moon sized body with a VERY active geological life. I imagine the Voyager team was as stunned as the New Horizons team is now. They put their heads together, shared data with other planetary scientists and came up with a theory since verified by other spacecraft. Io and other largish moons in orbits around gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn have strong tidal forces on them, along with competing pulls from other moons. Since their orbits aren’t perfectly circular, these constant tugs generate a great deal of friction, which results in a heat engine for the interior. So we learned that small bodies can have volcanoes and other activities — IF they orbit a body large enough to induce heat producing tides.

This does not likely seem to be the source of whatever internal heat that is causing Pluto and Charon to resurface themselves. Pluto has a fraction of Earth’s mass and doesn’t appear to have the “oomph” for a lack of a more technical term to be heating the interior of Charon. And it seems to be too small to generate it’s own heat. But both bodies show clear signs of resurfacing withing the last few hundred million years, so SOMETHING is at work, we just don’t know what. I’m really looking forward to any theories the astronomers have. My gut feeling would have been that any resurfacing has to be collision induced, somehow. But if it were that obvious, the New Horizons team would have offered that as an explanation.

My second biggest surprise was that Pluto had enough of an atmosphere to produce haze. The blue sky was knock me over with a feather time, but made sense once the New Horizons team mentioned that Nitrogen is a significant component of what little atmosphere Pluto has. Nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere scatters red and green light pretty well, leaving us with blue in our skies. But I thought that Pluto’s atmosphere was far thinner than even Mars’ atmosphere, so I wasn’t expecting haze visible from space.

One of the surprises in the currently defunct Sky and Telescope article that didn’t surprise me was that Pluto had a heart. We humans love to see patterns whether or not they’re really there. I feel it was inevitable that someone would find some pattern on Pluto worth remarking on.

Something that didn’t surprise the New Horizons team, but surprised me greatly is that Pluto is red. Apparently this has been known for at least a decade from telescope surveys, but I had missed it. It is a completely different mechanism than the iron rusting that makes Mars red.

If you’d like to look deeper into Pluto’s surprises, here are a few more press releases to guide your way:

October 8, 2015
New Horizons Finds Blue Skies and Water Ice on Pluto
September 10, 2015
New Pluto Images from New Horizons: It’s Complicated

August 10, 2005
Atmospheric Escape and Flowing N2 Ice Glaciers – What Resupplies Pluto’s Nitrogen?

July 3, 2015
The ‘Other’ Red Planet

If you’ve been following the New Horizons mission, what has surprised you the most so far?

‘M83: The Thousand Ruby Galaxy’ image

http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap151008.html via #NASA_APP


Testing share from NASA App.

From Mountains to Moons: Multiple Discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons | NASA

The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

via From Mountains to Moons: Multiple Discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons | NASA.

We find new mysteries to solve with nearly every space probe we send out and New Horizons is no exception. Pluto and its largest moon Charon have large smooth areas. A smooth area is interpreted as a young surface because throughout the Solar System’s history there were asteroids and comets that slammed into planet (yes, even dwarf planet) sized objects. We don’t notice many of these marks on Earth because we have wind, water, volcanic activity and tectonic plate activity to wipe out all but the largest craters in a very short time, geologically speaking. But look at the Moon with modest modification and you’ll get a sense of how many rocks have hit it over the years. The Moon has craters within craters with a few exceptions. That’s because it has no water or atmosphere to smooth things over.

Earth is geological activity because it is large enough to produce its own heat. The moon is not. Pluto and Charon are much smaller than the Moon and they shouldn’t be able to heat themselves either. There are smallish moons around Jupiter and Saturn that have water volcanoes. In these cases, tidal interactions with their giant primaries heat the interior, which drive geologic activity. Though we had no idea this could happen before the Voyager space probes.

After Voyager, we figured we had covered all the ways that a body could stay geologically active. New Horizons has proved us wrong. Again. I hope it returns enough data for us to put together a reasonable explanation, because it will be a long, long time before any probe goes to Pluto again. None are planned and it takes nearly a decade to get there.

7/15 Pluto’s First Close-Up: What will be your #PlutoRXN (reaction)? | usra.edu

The New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto and its moons July 13/14, 2015, capturing the first ever close-up images of the Pluto system. The first close-up image of Pluto will be released on July 15. What will the world think the first time we see this image? What will you think? We want to know. Simply tweet the first thought(s) that comes to your mind when you see this first, historic image of Pluto.

via Pluto’s First Close-Up: What will be your #PlutoRXN (reaction)? | What’s New.

You won’t need clear or dark skies to see the first truly close up pictures of Pluto EVER. Just check your computer on July 15th. Then share your reaction.

Pluto: The ‘Other’ Red Planet | NASA

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.

via Pluto: The ‘Other’ Red Planet | NASA.

New Horizons is a NASA probe launched years ago when Pluto was still the ninth planet. It will make it’s closet approach on Tuesday July 14th, but we’re already learning new things and confirming previous suspicions. Somehow I had missed that Pluto is red like Mars, but for different reasons.

I had thought to take July 14th off, but after reviewing the list of announced media activities, decided not to. No flyby images will be released that day. It looks like New Horizons will send a “I made it!” signal expected to be received around 4:15pm Alaska Time on July 14th, so I will look for that. As of this writing, flyby images are expected to be released sometime in the afternoon of the July 15th. Tune into NASA television when that happens.  I’ll let you know if I hear about a more precise time for the image release.

In terms of space exploration, I think it’s a good time to be alive.

NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Begins First Stages of Pluto Encounter | NASA

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently began its long-awaited, historic encounter with Pluto. The spacecraft is entering the first of several approach phases that culminate July 14 with the first close-up flyby of the dwarf planet, 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) from Earth.
“NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly.”
The fastest spacecraft when it was launched, New Horizons lifted off in January 2006. It awoke from its final hibernation period last month after a voyage of more than 3 billion miles, and will soon pass close to Pluto, inside the orbits of its five known moons.

via NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Begins First Stages of Pluto Encounter | NASA.

The exploration of Pluto has begun. Due to communication bandwidth issues, it will be sending back data for up to a year after it’s closest encounter with the recently demoted planet. But we should get some interesting imagery before then.

Name a crater on Mercury!

You have a chance to suggest a name for one of Mercury’s impact craters!

The MESSENGER science team has selected five craters of particular geological interest for this contest. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is the global authority in charge of assigning official names to features on the planets. According to the IAU rules for Mercury, impact craters are named in honor of people who have made outstanding or fundamental contributions to the Arts and Humanities (visual artists, writers, poets, dancers, architects, musicians, composers and so on).  The person must have been recognized as an art-historically significant figure for more than 50 years and must have been dead for at least three years.  We are particularly interested in submissions that honor people from nations and cultural groups that are under-represented amongst the currently-named craters.  See the current list of named Mercury craters.

via Rules – Name A Crater on Mercury.

Now’s your chance to have a crater named for a dead artist.


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