The two bright clusters of pixels in the image above might not seem like much of a big deal, but they are… those two blocky blobs are the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, as seen by the rapidly-approaching New Horizons spacecraft, destined for its ultimate close encounter in July 2015!
This represents a major milestone on the spacecraft’s 9½-year journey to conduct humanity’s first close-up reconnaissance of the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt and, in a sense, begins the mission’s long-range study of the Pluto system.
And that’s a very big deal indeed. Read on, fellow space fans…
Since we’re all in the democratic mood here today in the U.S., how about another chance to put your vote in on something: names for Pluto’s newest moons!
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the discovery of the first Kuiper Belt Object, 1992QB1. Called KBOs for short, these are distant and mostly tiny worlds made up of ice and rock that orbit the Sun at incredible distances, yet are still very much members of our Solar System. Since 1992 over 1,300 KBOs have been found, and with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft speeding along to its July 2015 rendezvous with Pluto and Charon (which one could reasonably argue are technically the first KBOs ever found) and then onwards into the Belt, we will soon know much more about these far-flung denizens of deep space. But how has the discovery of the Kuiper Belt — first proposed by Gerard Kuiper in 1951 — changed our understanding of the Solar System?
Acquired in March 2007, this eerie image from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys’s ultraviolet camera show glowing auroral emissions, always present in Jupiter’s polar regions.
The aurora is hundreds of kilometers wide and about 250 kilometers above the planet. It is caused by electrically charged particles striking atoms in the upper atmosphere from above, the same process involved in Earth’s aurorae (except that Jupiter’s magnetic field is orders of magnitude more powerful than Earth’s!)
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is currently speeding through the outer solar system toward its July 2015 date with Pluto, when it will take a good close look at the dwarf planet’s mysterious surface, atmosphere, moons, and… rings?
Less than three-quarters the size of our moon, Pluto nevertheless has no shortage of fascinating features. It has a curiously mottled coloration that seems to change with its seasons, an atmosphere that expands and falls back onto its surface, a system of four moons in orbit around it — the most recent of which, currently called “P4″, was announced just last summer — and, according to Planetary Science Institute senior scientist Henry Throop, possibly even a system of rings.
Hey, at this point… why not?
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed a new milestone today, officially becoming the closest spacecraft ever to the distant dwarf planet Pluto!
As it continues its trip through interplanetary space, clocking an impressive 35,000 mph (more than twice the speed of the ISS in orbit!) New Horizons is currently in hibernation mode, and has already passed the halfway point to Pluto. It will make its closest approach to the Pluto-Charon system on July 14, 2015.
The largest of Jupiter’s 63 known moons and the largest moon in our solar system, Ganymede has twice the mass of our own moon and is even larger than the planet Mercury. Its surface is marked by dark regions which are full of craters and lighter areas lined with ridges.
This image was taken by the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) in February 2007 while on its way to Pluto. New Horizons is scheduled to pass by Pluto in 2015…it is still en route and is currently between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, over 1.2 billion miles from Earth.
Ganymede has a thin oxygen atmosphere as well as a magnetosphere, and is the only moon currently known to have one. It is likely generated by a molten core made up of heavy conductive metals.
Discovered in 1610, Ganymede is easily visible from Earth as one of the four Galilean moons seen alongside Jupiter. All that’s needed is a small telescope or decent pair of binoculars mounted on a stand and a clear night sky.