A sample Beyond Earth Orbit podcast episode is now live on SoundCloud. You can listen to it at https://soundcloud.com/beyond-earth-orbit/beo-podcast-episode-1.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft snapped this beautiful silhouette pic of Pluto’s night-side on 15 July, when it was about two million kilometres past the charismatic dwarf planet. The soft glow is the result of sunlight being refracted through Pluto’s atmosphere, which is thought to be composed mainly of nitrogen (like Earth’s atmosphere), with smaller quantities of carbon monoxide and methane present.
These are the most recent high-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode.
The left image shows, on the right side of the disk, a large bright area on the hemisphere of Pluto that will be seen in close-up by New Horizons on July 14. The three images together show the full extent of a continuous swath of dark terrain that wraps around much of Pluto’s equatorial region. The western end of the swath (right image) breaks up into a series of striking dark regularly-spaced spots, each hundreds of miles in size, which were first detected in New Horizons images taken in late June. Intriguing details are beginning to emerge in the bright material north of the dark region, in particular a series of bright and dark patches that are conspicuous just below the center of the disk in the right image. In all three black-and-white views, the apparent jagged bottom edge of Pluto is the result of image processing. The inset shows Pluto’s orientation, illustrating its north pole, equator, and central meridian running from pole to pole.
The color version of the July 3 LORRI image was created by adding color data from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission.
New Horizons mission control in Maryland, US, experienced a loss of communications with the spacecraft beginning at 1654hrs UTC on Saturday, 4 July, and lasting about 80 minutes.
The spacecraft’s autopilot went into ‘safe mode’ and commanded the back-up computer to re-initiate communications with Earth. New Horizons is presently around 4.4 light-hours from Earth, so the spacecraft had undertaken the steps to re-establish communication three hours before the initial break in the signal had even reached Earth.
Mission control are investigating and have promised more information as it becomes available.
Press Release: New Horizons team responds to spacecraft anomaly
Less than a fortnight out from New Horizons’ flyby of everyone’s favourite maligned dwarf planet, Pluto, the spacecraft is starting to reveal details of the planet’s surface features.
Pluto appears red like Mars, but for very different reasons. Mars’ colouring is due to iron oxide (rust, basically) in
its soil. But according to NASA in Pluto’s case it 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”.