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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.

Astronomy by Internet update – Dark Skies ISS

Armchair astronomers rejoice! I have updated my Astronomy by Internet page. The latest update introduces a new Solar System object – the Earth. 

The first project to appear here is Dark Skies ISS, a project posted by a Spanish led research team to the Crowdcrafting site, a site I wasn’t aware of until I read about on the NASA web site. 

From the project page:

Right now there are around 1,800,000 images at the Johnson Space Center database (The Gateway of the Astronauts). Around 1,200,000 images were taken aboard the ISS (date 02/20/2014). However, the number of classified images is much smaller, and there is no archive of georeferenced images. There is already a project to classify the daytime images (Image detective), but the techniques used in that project are not useful for the classification of nighttime images. The patterns on Earth are not the same during the day and night, which is why another technique is needed to classify these nighttime images.


Our main objective is to study light pollution that comes from cities. We want to stop the waste of energy and the destruction of the mighty ecosystem.


Your collaboration is really important because algorithms cannot distinguish between stars, cities, and other objects (i.e. moon). Thus, we need your help to assess the light pollution in our world!


For more information, please contact www.citiesatnight.org or Twitter handle: @cities4tnight.

Also you can contribute on our other apps Lost at night (find unlocated images) and NightCitiesISS(Georeference known cities).

I find Dark Skies ISS to be beautiful and sort of relaxing. And I’m contributing to mapping light pollution. A good deal for all sides. Consider giving it a whirl. If you know of other citizen/layperson science projects involving an astronomy theme, drop me a line. 

Earth and Space Highlights From LPI: December 2013

I get a monthly mailing from the Lunar and Planetary Institute. I thought it would be fun to share a few highlights each month with you.

Planetarium Shows Available to Watch Online 
These shows were first developed for established planetariums by Rice University and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, but are available to watch free online. There are dozens of topics include a new asteroid and comet show, “IMPACT!”

The shows are in fisheye view online because they are previews for shows intended to be shown with fisheye projectors under an inflatable dome.

“Space Weather” Software Available Free Online 
Space Weather software is a treasure trove of material about space weather, the auroras, heliospheric missions, and the sun. It allows one-click updating of the solar and auroral imaging and space weather forecasts. Free downloads of portions of the program are now available online.

Haven’t tried the software yet, but it looks useful for those of us monitoring the Sun.

Salty Water on Mars? 
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has observed slender dark markings that advance seasonally down slopes on Mars, near the Martian equator. These observations are forcing scientists to re-evaluate how dry the Martian equator is; the best explanation for the dark markings is salty water that flows down the slopes as the temperature rises.

I’d love for this to be confirmed one way or the other. A place with actual liquid water would be stop number one for a probe specifically equipped to detect current life as we know it.


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