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New Horizons Captures Pluto and Charon Orbiting

Animation of Pluto and Charon showing nearly a full rotation (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Animation of Pluto and Charon showing nearly a full rotation (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Whether you think Pluto is a planet, a dwarf planet, a Kuiper Belt Object – or something else entirely – you should still be fascinated by this: a video of the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon Charon showing the two distinctly separate worlds actually in motion around each other! Captured by the New Horizons spacecraft from July 19–24, the 12 images that comprise this animation were acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument from distances of 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million km) and show nearly a full orbital rotation. Amazing!

Read more and see a close-up of these two distant worlds in my article on Universe Today here.

Boom! Io Explodes With Volcanic Eruptions Hundreds of Miles High

A volcanic outburst on Io on Aug. 29, 2013. Credit: Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory

Infrared image of a volcanic outburst on Io on Aug. 29, 2013. Credit: Katherine de Kleer/UC Berkeley/Gemini Observatory

Three enormous volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s moon Io were witnessed by scientists last year using the Keck II and Gemini telescopes in Hawaii. The only other confirmed volcanically-active world in the solar system besides Earth, Io is constantly being resurfaced by eruptions and lava flows, due to internal heat and pressures caused by tidal stresses as a result of its elliptical orbit around Jupiter. These recent outbursts were exceptionally powerful, sending huge amounts of incredibly hot molten material out into space and likely coating a large area on its surface as well.

“We typically expect one huge outburst every one or two years, and they’re usually not this bright,” said Imke de Pater, professor and chair of astronomy at UC Berkeley and lead author of a paper describing the 2013 eruptions. “Here we had three extremely bright outbursts, which suggest that if we looked more frequently we might see many more of them on Io.”

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What Is Pluto? A New Video from New Horizons

Is Pluto a planet? A dwarf planet? A Kuiper Belt Object? All — or none — of the above?

Pluto has been a topic of scientific fascination since Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in February 1930, and then a topic of controversy after the IAU reclassified it as a dwarf planet in 2006. While conversations continue over Pluto’s planetary identity, at least one theme carried through the talks at the Pluto Science Conference in July 2013. See if you can figure out what it is in the video above! (Hint: it’s not difficult.)

NASA’s New Horizons mission will help us understand worlds at the planetary frontier by making the first reconnaissance of Pluto in July 2015. Read more about the mission here.

#plutolives

Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Fastest, Farthest, First: New Horizons Closing in on Pluto


It’s a journey spanning 85 years and billions of miles: humanity’s first-ever encounter with the dwarf planet system of Pluto and Charon, located in the frozen far reaches of our Solar System where our entire planet is a barely-visible pale blue dot — just a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Launched in 2006, the New Horizons spacecraft will pass by Pluto in July 2015 and send back images and data in unprecedented detail, 85 years after its discovery. With the flyby just about a year and a half away, the excitement in the space community is rapidly building even now.

The video above is a “teaser” for the event from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University — check it out. (Warning: may contain scenes of intense scientific discovery!) Also, watch a longer documentary below on the history of Pluto and the New Horizons mission:
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New Horizons’ First Look at Pluto’s Big Moon

Pluto and Charon as seen by the approaching New Horizons spacecraft

Pluto and Charon as seen by the approaching New Horizons spacecraft

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…

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Here’s Something Else to Vote On: Names for Pluto’s Newest Moons!

Hubble image of the newly-expanded Pluto family (NASA, ESA and M. Showalter/SETI)

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!

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What We’ve Learned From The Kuiper Belt

The first Kuiper Belt Object (besides Pluto and Charon) was 1992 QB1, first spotted on August 30, 1992 (ESO)

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?

Find out here.

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