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  • richardmitnick 8:03 am on October 19, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 2014 MU69, After Pluto: New Horizons’ Next Target is a Relict of Creation, , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From DISCOVER: “After Pluto: New Horizons’ Next Target is a Relict of Creation” 

    DiscoverMag

    Discover Magazine

    October 18, 2016
    Eric Betz

    1
    An artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flying past its next target. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    Far, far past Pluto, the most distant object humanity has ever visited, there’s a tiny world fainter than any seen in that part of our solar system. Its dark orbit reaches a billion miles beyond the former ninth planet. But 2014 MU69, as it’s labeled by astronomers, is just a few dozen miles across — too scant to be spherical.

    There’s nothing particularly special about it. Thousands of similarly mysterious and icy worlds lurk in these celestial suburbs. Yet it’s precisely its banality that makes this little prince of a planet so special — 2014 MU69 is made of the very stuff of creation.

    And on Jan. 1, 2019, an army of astronomers will turn their gaze to this world for a few hours, as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft blazes by at some 8 miles per second.

    At the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Pasadena, California, this week, astronomers discussed how the spacecraft’s next target is coming into focus. A team has been using the Hubble Space Telescope, which also first detected 2014 MU69 during a hunt for additional New Horizons targets, to learn more about the distant world.

    “We’re going to fly past something in the solar system that is about as old as we possibly can,” says Planetary Science Institute astronomer Susan Benecchi. “And that’s exciting because it’s information we couldn’t glean otherwise.”

    A Primordial World

    The scientists believe 2014 MU69 is what’s called a cold, classical Kuiper Belt Object. The Kuiper Belt is a disk-shaped region of icy objects past Neptune.

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center
    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    But Pluto isn’t part of that classical population. The distant dwarf planet crosses Neptune’s orbit, and that proximity lead it to collide with other objects — large and small — over the eons as giant gaseous worlds shuffled about our outer solar system, flinging off space rocks. So, much of Pluto’s ancient history was erased in encounters with other worlds.

    And similarly, comets and asteroids, which are also excellent time capsules, have interacted with other objects and been bombarded by solar radiation.

    2
    Path of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft toward its next potential target. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker)

    But cold, classical objects like 2014 MU69 orbit further out. They are pristine, primordial remnants from the days our system began to coalesce out of the solar nebula. Primordial means that 2014 MU69 could have existed before there were dinosaurs, or trees, or eyes to see them, and before there was even a fully formed Earth or a sun to cast a dim light on its distant surface.

    “This population of objects has not been perturbed for a long time,” says Benecchi. “We’re looking at a really old part of the solar system, and we’re learning something about what happened a long time ago.”

    Hubble observations have helped them gain confidence that 2014 MU69 is part of that cold classical population because its surface is red. And Hubble’s catalog of thousands of other known such objects shows that the tiny object’s reddish hue is an excellent match. Its surface is redder than Pluto, but not quite so red as Mars.

    “The data confirms that on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets,” says Amanda Zangari, a researcher on the New Horizons team.

    Thousands of Tiny Red Planets

    That red surface color on Pluto and other redder, more primordial objects, comes from complex organic molecules that Carl Sagan called tholins.

    “When you see something red in the outer solar system, generally that’s an indication the object is covered in complex organic molecules,” Northern Arizona University astronomer Stephen Tegler told me when I toured the Astrophysical Ice Laboratory before the New Horizons flyby. The lab simulated Pluto’s ice on thin films so that astronomers would better understand what they were looking at.

    When sunlight reaches Pluto’s surface, blue light is absorbed, showing our eyes red.

    “One of the things that can absorb really efficiently in blue are complex organic molecules,” Tegler says. “An easy way to generate them would be to take something like methane and hit it with particles or UV light; you can break it up and form more complex molecules.”

    And while Pluto was known to have a red tint before New Horizons flew by, it wasn’t really considered red like many of its neighbors. So, 2014 MU69 might have a truly surprising appearance once we finally see it.

    “This primordial population that is going to give us the largest lever arm for understanding the physical properties of the early solar nebula,” Benecchi says.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:49 am on July 2, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From New Horizons: “From Canada to Pluto and Beyond” 

    NASA image

    NASA

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    New Horizons

    July 1, 2016
    Alex Parker, Southwest Research Institute

    Nature is a common theme in Canadian literature, with desolate, remote landscapes often playing a role. It should come as no surprise, then, that Canada had a hand in writing the latest chapter in the story of Pluto, the most desolate and remote landscape ever explored.

    To mark the first Canada Day (July 1) since the Pluto flyby, I wanted to share some of the ways that Canadian efforts have supported the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.

    A number of New Horizons team members are from Canada or were trained there in one way or another. I studied for my PhD at the University of Victoria in British Columbia; my PhD was in astrophysics, a field in which Canada is renowned as a global leader. Canada’s national partnership in the twin 8-meter Gemini observatories allowed me to pursue research in planetary astronomy, pushing the limits of what can be done with ground-based astronomical imaging without adaptive optics to explore the properties of binary systems in the Kuiper Belt. It was this work that prepared me for and eventually steered me toward the New Horizons mission, where I joined the team that discovered 2014 MU69, the post-Pluto target for a potential New Horizons extended mission.

    1
    The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (left) and the Gemini North observatory (right), at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA. These two facilities both collected critical images in support of the New Horizons mission under Canadian-led programs. Credit: Alex Parker

    Perhaps the most crucial Canadian contributions are in an area with a very long history: navigating a ship by the stars. During New Horizons’ approach to Pluto last year, it was a made-in-Canada star map that helped guide the way. National Research Council (NRC) of Canada scientists at the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC) in British Columbia used data collected from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) to assemble a detailed navigational star map for the mission, which was used by the Navigation and Hazards teams to keep the spacecraft on-course and safe from harm.

    Dr. Stephen Gwyn and Dr. JJ Kavelaars, both at the NRC-CADC, have worked to support the New Horizons mission for years. JJ Kavelaars was my PhD supervisor, and both he and Stephen Gwyn taught me much of what I know about the astrometric and image processing techniques needed to find and track New Horizons’ potential post-Pluto target, 2014 MU69.

    Gwyn developed and maintains MegaPipe, the data processing service that helps turn raw CFHT images into precisely-calibrated star maps, among other things. Using data collected from CFHT’s extremely well-calibrated MegaCam imager especially for the Pluto mission, Gwyn created a catalog the stars that would stand as a backdrop for Pluto during the flyby. The purpose of the catalog was to provide extremely precise locations and properties of the stars that would appear in New Horizons images on approach, so they could be used as navigational aids.

    Frédéric Pelletier, a former Canadian Space Agency engineer from Quebec, was the KinetX Deputy Navigation Team Chief for the Pluto flyby. He and his team compared imagery from New Horizons to the CFHT star map to determine exactly the path that New Horizons was on with respect to Pluto, and adjust its course to achieve the planned flyby. The targeting was precise enough to fly New Horizons through the shadows of both Pluto and Charon. This allowed New Horizons to examine Pluto’s atmosphere backlit by the sun, and perform detailed analysis of its chemical makeup. The Atmospheres science team is led by Dr. Randy Gladstone at SwRI, who grew up in Canada and attended the University of British Columba.

    Both Gwyn and Kavelaars are involved in our continued tracking of 2014 MU69, providing their expertise on matters of extremely high-precision astrometry of both stars and Kuiper Belt Objects. The CFHT star map is still in use for determining the precise orbit of 2014 MU69, and Kavelaars has led a Gemini Observatory program to track and refine the orbits of many other Kuiper Belt objects that New Horizons would study at long range during an extended mission.

    If an extended mission is approved, these efforts will continue to help New Horizons find its way into the unknown as it flies to worlds in the outer solar system more distant than have ever been explored.

    See the full article here .

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    The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.

    The Journey

    New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015, culminating with Pluto closest approach on July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, pending NASA approval, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine another of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.

    Sending a spacecraft on this long journey is helping us to answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.

    New Science

    The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – including Pluto – of the highest priority for solar system exploration. Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).

    Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs.” They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.

    Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

    A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons is exploring – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.

    The Need to Explore

    The United States has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. New Horizons is allowing the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.

    A Team Approach

    The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

     
  • richardmitnick 11:05 am on May 27, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons, Object 1994 JR1   

    From Astronomy: “New Horizons collects first science on a Kuiper Belt object past Pluto” 

    Astronomy magazine

    Astronomy Magazine

    May 18, 2016
    NASA

    The spacecraft has now twice observed 1994 JR1, a Kuiper Belt object orbiting more than 3 billion miles from the Sun.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    1
    New Horizons scientists used light curve data – the variations in the brightness of light reflected from the object’s surface – to determine JR1’s rotation period of 5.4 hours. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

    Warming up for a possible extended mission as it speeds through deep space, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has now twice observed 1994 JR1, a 90-mile-wide (145 kilometers) Kuiper Belt object (KBO) orbiting more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km) from the Sun. Science team members have used these observations to reveal new facts about this distant remnant of the early solar system.

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center
    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    Taken with the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on April 7-8 from a distance of about 69 million miles (111 million km), the images follow on observations from November 2015, when New Horizons detected JR1 from 170 million miles (280 million km) away.

    NASA New Horizons LORRI Camera
    NASA New Horizons LORRI Camera

    Simon Porter, a New Horizons science team member from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said the observations contain several valuable findings. “Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 600 miles (1,000km), far better than any small KBO,” he said, adding that the more accurate orbit also allows the science team to dispel a theory, suggested several years ago, that JR1 is a quasi-satellite of Pluto.

    From the closer vantage point of the April 2016 observations, the team also determined the object’s rotation period, observing the changes in light reflected from JR1’s surface to determine that it rotates once every 5.4 hours (or a JR1 day). “That’s relatively fast for a KBO,” said John Spencer from SwRI. “This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.”

    Spencer added that these observations are great practice for possible close-up looks at about 20 more ancient Kuiper Belt objects that may come in the next few years, should NASA approve an extended mission. New Horizons flew through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015, making the first close-up observations of Pluto and its family of five moons. The spacecraft is on course for an ultra-close flyby of another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on January 1, 2019.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:46 pm on May 24, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA New Horizons, New Horizons Collects First Science on a Post-Pluto Object   

    From New Horizons: “New Horizons Collects First Science on a Post-Pluto Object” 

    NASA image

    NASA

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    New Horizons

    May 17, 2016
    Tricia Talbert

    Warming up for a possible extended mission as it speeds through deep space, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has now twice observed 1994 JR1, a 90-mile-wide (145-kilometer-wide) Kuiper Belt object (KBO) orbiting more than 3 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from the sun.

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center
    “Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    Science team members have used these observations to reveal new facts about this distant remnant of the early solar system.

    Taken with the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on April 7-8 from a distance of about 69 million miles (111 million kilometers), the images shatter New Horizons’ own record for the closest-ever views of this KBO in November 2015, when New Horizons detected JR1 from 170 million miles (280 million kilometers) away.

    NASA New Horizons LORRI Camera
    NASA New Horizons LORRI Camera

    Simon Porter, a New Horizons science team member from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said the observations contain several valuable findings. “Combining the November 2015 and April 2016 observations allows us to pinpoint the location of JR1 to within 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles), far better than any small KBO,” he said, adding that the more accurate orbit also allows the science team to dispel a theory, suggested several years ago, that JR1 is a quasi-satellite of Pluto.

    From the closer vantage point of the April 2016 observations, the team also determined the object’s rotation period, observing the changes in light reflected from JR1’s surface to determine that it rotates once every 5.4 hours (or a JR1 day). “That’s relatively fast for a KBO,” said science team member John Spencer, also from SwRI. “This is all part of the excitement of exploring new places and seeing things never seen before.”

    Spencer added that these observations are great practice for possible close-up looks at about 20 more ancient Kuiper Belt objects that may come in the next few years, should NASA approve an extended mission. New Horizons flew through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015, making the first close-up observations of Pluto and its family of five moons. The spacecraft is on course for an ultra-close flyby of another Kuiper Belt object, 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019.

    1
    Above, the first two of the 20 observations that New Horizons made of 1994 JR1 in April 2016. The Kuiper Belt object is the bright moving dot indicated by the arrow. The dots that do not move are background stars. The moving features in the top left and far right are internal camera reflections (a kind of selfie) caused by illumination by a very bright star just outside of LORRI’s field of view; the one on the left shows the three arms that hold up LORRI’s secondary mirror. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

    2
    New Horizons scientists used light curve data – the variations in the brightness of light reflected from the object’s surface – to determine JR1’s rotation period of 5.4 hours.
    Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.

    The Journey

    New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015, culminating with Pluto closest approach on July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, pending NASA approval, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine another of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.

    Sending a spacecraft on this long journey is helping us to answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.

    New Science

    The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – including Pluto – of the highest priority for solar system exploration. Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).

    Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs.” They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.

    Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

    A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons is exploring – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.

    The Need to Explore

    The United States has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. New Horizons is allowing the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.

    A Team Approach

    The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

     
  • richardmitnick 5:08 pm on May 10, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA New Horizons, Pluto’s Interaction with the Solar Wind is Unique,   

    From New Horizons: “Pluto’s Interaction with the Solar Wind is Unique, Study Finds” 

    NASA image

    NASA

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    New Horizons

    May 4, 2016
    Editor: Bill Keeter

    1
    Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this global view of Pluto. The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers).Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

    Pluto behaves less like a comet than expected and somewhat more like a planet like Mars or Venus in the way it interacts with the solar wind, a continuous stream of charged particles from the sun.

    This is according to the first analysis of Pluto’s interaction with the solar wind, funded by NASA’s New Horizons mission and published* today in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics by the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

    Using data from the Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP) instrument from the New Horizons July 2015 flyby, scientists have for the first time observed the material coming off of Pluto’s atmosphere and studied how it interacts with the solar wind, leading to yet another “Pluto surprise.”

    “This is a type of interaction we’ve never seen before anywhere in our solar system,” said David J. McComas, lead author of the study. McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and vice president for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. “The results are astonishing.” McComas leads the SWAP instrument aboard New Horizons; he also led the development of SWAP when he was at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

    Space physicists say that they now have a treasure trove of information about how Pluto’s atmosphere interacts with the solar wind. Solar wind is the plasma that spews from the sun into the solar system at a supersonic 100 million miles per hour (160 million kilometers per hour), bathing planets, asteroids, comets and interplanetary space in a soup of mostly protons and electrons.

    Previously, most researchers thought that Pluto was characterized more like a comet, which has a large region of gentle slowing of the solar wind, as opposed to the abrupt diversion solar wind encounters at a planet like Mars or Venus. Instead, like a car that’s part gas- and part battery-powered, Pluto is a hybrid, researchers say.

    So Pluto continues to confound. “These results speak to the power of exploration. Once again we’ve gone to a new kind of place and found ourselves discovering entirely new kinds of expressions in nature,” said SwRI’s Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator.

    Since it’s so far from the sun – an average of about 3.7 billion miles, the farthest planet in the solar system – and because it’s the smallest, scientists thought Pluto’s gravity would not be strong enough to hold heavy ions in its extended atmosphere. But, “Pluto’s gravity clearly is enough to keep material relatively confined,” McComas said.

    The researchers were able to separate the heavy ions of methane, the main gas escaping from Pluto’s atmosphere, from the light ions of hydrogen that come from the sun using the SWAP instrument.

    Among additional Pluto findings:

    Like Earth, Pluto has a long ion tail, that extends downwind at least a distance of about 100 Pluto radii (73,800 miles/118,700 kilometers, almost three times the circumference of Earth), loaded with heavy ions from the atmosphere and with “considerable structure.”
    Pluto’s obstruction of the solar wind upwind of the planet is smaller than had been thought. The solar wind isn’t blocked until about the distance of a couple planetary radii (1,844 miles/3,000 kilometers, about the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles.)
    Pluto has a very thin boundary of Pluto’s tail of heavy ions and the sheath of the shocked solar wind that presents an obstacle to its flow.

    Heather Elliott, astrophysicist at SwRI and co-author on the paper, notes, “Comparing the solar wind-Pluto interaction to the solar wind-interaction for other planets and bodies is interesting because the physical conditions are different for each, and the dominant physical processes depend on those conditions.”

    These findings offer clues to the magnetized plasmas that one might find around other stars, said McComas. “The range of interaction with the solar wind is quite diverse, and this gives some comparison to help us better understand the connections in our solar system and beyond.”

    *Science paper:
    Pluto’s Interaction with the Solar Wind

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.

    The Journey

    New Horizons launched on Jan. 19, 2006; it swung past Jupiter for a gravity boost and scientific studies in February 2007, and conducted a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons in summer 2015, culminating with Pluto closest approach on July 14, 2015. As part of an extended mission, pending NASA approval, the spacecraft is expected to head farther into the Kuiper Belt to examine another of the ancient, icy mini-worlds in that vast region, at least a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.

    Sending a spacecraft on this long journey is helping us to answer basic questions about the surface properties, geology, interior makeup and atmospheres on these bodies.

    New Science

    The National Academy of Sciences has ranked the exploration of the Kuiper Belt – including Pluto – of the highest priority for solar system exploration. Generally, New Horizons seeks to understand where Pluto and its moons “fit in” with the other objects in the solar system, such as the inner rocky planets (Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury) and the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune).

    Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, belong to a third category known as “ice dwarfs.” They have solid surfaces but, unlike the terrestrial planets, a significant portion of their mass is icy material.

    Using Hubble Space Telescope images, New Horizons team members have discovered four previously unknown moons of Pluto: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.

    A close-up look at these worlds from a spacecraft promises to tell an incredible story about the origins and outskirts of our solar system. New Horizons is exploring – for the first time – how ice dwarf planets like Pluto and Kuiper Belt bodies have evolved over time.

    The Need to Explore

    The United States has been the first nation to reach every planet from Mercury to Neptune with a space probe. New Horizons is allowing the U.S. to complete the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.

    A Team Approach

    The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

     
  • richardmitnick 5:25 pm on April 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From SA: “New Horizons Has Big Plans Beyond Pluto” 

    Scientific American

    Scientific American

    April 26, 2016
    Mike Wall, SPACE.com

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    The public should know soon if NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will get to perform a second epic flyby in the dark depths of the outer solar system.

    New Horizons team members have officially submitted an extended-mission proposal for the probe, which captured the first-ever up-close looks at Pluto during a historic flyby of the dwarf planet last July. NASA is now evaluating the proposal and will decide by June or July whether to approve and fund this “Kuiper Belt Extended Mission” (KEM), said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern.

    The KEM—so named because it would continue to explore the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit—would send New Horizons zooming past a small object known as 2014 MU69 on Jan. 1, 2019.

    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center
    Kuiper Belt. Minor Planet Center

    “The planned flyby will approach MU69 to about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers), which is about four times closer than we flew past Pluto,” Stern, who’s based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, wrote in a blog post last week.

    “Consequently, imaging and compositional mapping spectroscopy resolutions are all expected to be even better than what we achieved at the Pluto system,” he added. “If I do say so myself, the flyby of MU69 would be a landmark event, shattering all distance records for deep-space exploration, and yielding an impressive scientific bounty.”

    The 2014 MU69 object is between 13 and 25 miles (21 and 40 km) wide. So the object is about 1,000 times more massive than Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft has been orbiting since August 2014, and about 500,000 times less massive than Pluto, Stern said.

    ESA/Rosetta spacecraft
    ESA/Rosetta spacecraft

    “This places it in a key intermediate size regime to better understand planetary accretion,” he wrote. “And given its 4-plus-billion-year existence in cold storage [while located] so far from the sun, MU69 will be the most pristine object ever visited by any space mission.”

    If NASA green lights the KEM, New Horizons will study 2014 MU69—which lies about 1 billion miles (1.6 billion km) beyond Pluto’s orbit—with all seven of the probe’s science instruments, characterizing the object’s surface, and searching for moons and an atmosphere, among other activities.

    Flyby operations would last from late September 2018 through early January 2019, about a week after closest approach. It would then take about 20 months for New Horizons to beam home all of the flyby data, Stern wrote. (About half of the Pluto flyby data has come back to mission control to date; all of the data should be on the ground by October or November.)

    But the KEM wouldn’t just be about the 2014 MU69 close encounter. For example, New Horizons would also conduct 16 to 20 “distant flybys” of other Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) and search for rings around a number of KBOs from 2016 through 2020, Stern wrote.

    The spacecraft would also continue studying gas, dust and plasma in the Kuiper Belt and, possibly, perform some astrophysical observations before the KEM wraps up in 2021, Stern wrote.

    New Horizons is already on its way toward 2014 MU69; the spacecraft performed an engine burn late last year to help pave the way for the potential flyby, should NASA approve an extension. Stern expressed optimism that this will indeed happen.

    “With New Horizons so healthy, so capable of carrying out KEM and so successful at Pluto, we are optimistic about our proposal, which NASA will soon have peer-reviewed,” he wrote in the blog post. “If KEM is approved, we will begin both KEM science observations and MU69 flyby planning this fall. If the proposal fails, we will have to turn the spacecraft off in December for a lack of funds to continue.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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    Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in the U.S., has been bringing its readers unique insights about developments in science and technology for more than 160 years.

     
  • richardmitnick 9:15 pm on April 5, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From Goddard: “NASA’s New Horizons Fills Gap in Space Environment Observations” 

    NASA Goddard Banner
    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    April 4, 2016
    Sarah Frazier
    sarah.a.frazier@nasa.gov
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

    When NASA’s New Horizons sped past Pluto on July 14, 2015, it took the best-ever pictures of the rocky world’s surface, giving us new insight into its geology, composition and atmosphere. These stunning images are the most famous result of New Horizons, but the spacecraft also sent back over three years’ worth of measurements of the solar wind – the constant flow of solar particles that the sun flings out into space – from a region that has been visited by only a few spacecraft.

    This unprecedented set of observations give us a peek into an almost entirely unexplored part of our space environment – filling a crucial gap between what other missions see closer to the sun and what the Voyager spacecraft see further out. A new study to appear in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement lays out New Horizons’ observations of the solar wind ions that it encountered on its journey.

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    Space environment data collected by New Horizons over a billion miles of its journey to Pluto will play a key role in testing and improving models of the space environment throughout the solar system. This visualization is one example of such a model: It shows the simulated space environment out to Pluto a few months before New Horizons’ closest approach. Drawn over the model is the path of New Horizons up to 2015, as well as the current direction of the two Voyager spacecraft – which are currently at three or four times New Horizons’ distance from the sun. The solar wind that New Horizons encountered will reach the Voyager spacecraft about a year later.
    Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, the Space Weather Research Center (SWRC) and the Community-Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC), Enlil and Dusan Odstrcil (GMU)

    Not only does the New Horizons data provide new glimpses of the space environment of the outer solar system, but this information helps round out our growing picture of the sun’s influence on space, from near-Earth effects to the boundary where the solar wind meets interstellar space. The new data shows particles in the solar wind that have picked up an initial burst of energy, an acceleration boost that kicks them up just past their original speed. These particles may be the seeds of extremely energetic particles called anomalous cosmic rays. When these super-fast, energetic rays travel closer to Earth, they can pose a radiation hazard to astronauts. Further away, at lower energies, the rays are thought to play a role at shaping the boundary where the solar wind hits interstellar space – the region of our solar system that Voyager 2 is currently navigating and observing.

    Studying the Solar Wind

    2
    Space environment data collected by New Horizons over a billion miles of its journey to Pluto will play a key role in testing and improving models of the space environment throughout the solar system. This visualization is one example of such a model: It shows the simulated space environment out to Pluto a few months before New Horizons’ closest approach.
    Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, the Space Weather Research Center (SWRC) and the Community-Coordinated Modeling Center (CCMC), Enlil and Dusan Odstrcil (GMU)

    View full video on YouTube,

    Though space is about a thousand times emptier than even the best laboratory vacuums on Earth, it’s not completely devoid of matter – the sun’s constant outflow of solar wind fills space with a thin and tenuous wash of particles, fields, and ionized gas known as plasma. This solar wind, along with other solar events like giant explosions called coronal mass ejections, influences the very nature of space and can interact with the magnetic systems of Earth and other worlds. Such effects also change the radiation environment through which our spacecraft – and, one day, our astronauts headed to Mars – travel.

    New Horizons measured this space environment for over a billion miles of its journey, from just beyond the orbit of Uranus to its encounter with Pluto.

    “The instrument was only scheduled to power on for annual checkouts after the Jupiter flyby in 2007,” said Heather Elliott, a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and lead author on the study. “We came up with a plan to keep the particle instruments on during the cruise phase while the rest of the spacecraft was hibernating and started observing in 2012.”

    This plan yielded three years of near-continuous observations of the space environment in a region of space where only a handful of spacecraft have ever flown, much less captured detailed measurements.

    “This region is billions of cubic miles, and we have a handful of spacecraft that have passed through every decade or so,” said Eric Christian, a space scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who studies what’s called the heliosphere – the region of our solar system dominated by the solar wind – but was not involved with this study. “We learn more from every one.”

    Since the sun is the source of the solar wind, events on the sun are the primary force that shapes the space environment. Shocks in the solar wind – which can create space weather, such as auroras, on worlds with magnetic fields – are created either by fast, dense clouds of material called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, or by the collision of two different-speed solar wind streams. These individual features are discernible in the inner solar system – but New Horizons didn’t see the same level of detail.

    The New Horizons data show that the space environment in the outer solar system has less detailed structure than space closer to Earth, since smaller structures tend to be worn down or clump together as they travel outwards, creating fewer – but bigger – features.

    “At this distance, the scale size of discernible structures increases, since smaller structures are worn down or merge together,” said Elliott. “It’s hard to predict if the interaction between smaller structures will create a bigger structure, or if they will flatten out completely.”

    Subtler signs of the sun’s influence are also harder to spot in the outer solar system. Characteristics of the solar wind – including speed, density, and temperature – are shaped by the region of the sun it flows from. As the sun and its different wind-producing regions rotate, patterns form. New Horizons didn’t see patterns as defined as they are when closer to the sun, but nevertheless it did spot some structure.

    “Speed and density average together as the solar wind moves out,” said Elliott. “But the wind is still being heated by compression as it travels, so you can see evidence of the sun’s rotation pattern in the temperature even in the outer solar system.”

    Finding the Origins of Space Radiation Hazards

    The New Horizons observations also show what may be the starting seeds of the extremely energetic particles that make up anomalous cosmic rays. Anomalous cosmic rays are observed near Earth and can contribute to radiation hazard for astronauts, so scientists want to better understand what causes them.

    The seeds for these energetic, super-fast particles may also help shape the boundary where the solar wind meets interstellar space. Anomalous cosmic rays have been observed by the two Voyager spacecraft out near these boundaries, but only in their final stages, leaving questions as to the exact location and mechanism of their origins.
    measurement of seed particles for anomalous cosmic rays in the solar wind.

    3
    This figure shows solar wind observations measured by New Horizons from Jan. 1 to Aug. 25, 2015. This measurement of seed particles for anomalous cosmic rays in the solar wind is completely new in this region of space and is key for interpreting Voyager data further out in the interstellar boundary region. Points closer to the top of the graph correspond to higher-energy particles, and red and yellow colors show a larger number of particles hitting the detector. The particle instruments were shut down during certain spacecraft operations and trajectory maneuvers, resulting in brief data gaps. Credits: NASA/New Horizons/SwRI

    “The Voyagers can’t measure these seed particles, only the outcome,” said Christian. “So with New Horizons going into that region, this blank patch in the observations is being filled in with data.”

    Filling in such a blank patch will help scientists better understand the way such particles move and affect the space environment around them, helping to interpret what Voyager is seeing on its journey.

    Comparing New Horizons to Observations and Models

    Since New Horizons is one of the very few spacecraft that has explored the space environment in the outer solar system, lack of corroborating data meant that a key part of Elliott’s work was simply calibrating the data. Her work was supported by the Heliophysics Research and Analysis program.

    She calibrated the observations with pointing information from New Horizons, the results of extensive tests on the laboratory version of the instrument, and comparison with data from the inner solar system. NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, or ACE, and NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, for example, observe the space environment near Earth’s orbit, allowing scientists to capture a snapshot of solar events as they head towards the edges of the solar system. But because the space environment in the outer solar system is relatively unexplored, it wasn’t clear how those events would develop. The only previous information on space in this region was from Voyager 2, which traveled through roughly the same region of space as New Horizons, although about a quarter of a century earlier.

    “There are similar characteristics between what was seen by New Horizons and Voyager 2, but the number of events is different,” said Elliott. “Solar activity was much more intense when Voyager 2 traveled through this region.”

    Now, with two data sets from this region, scientists have even more information about this distant area of space. Not only does this help us characterize the space environment better, but it will be key for scientists testing models of how the solar wind propagates throughout the solar system. In the absence of a constant sentinel measuring the particles and magnetic fields in space near Pluto, we rely on simulations – not unlike terrestrial weather simulations – to model space weather throughout the solar system. Before New Horizons passed Pluto, such models were used to simulate the structure of the solar wind in the outer solar system. With a calibrated data set in hand, scientists can compare the reality to the simulations and improve future models.

    See the full article here.

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    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is home to the nation’s largest organization of combined scientists, engineers and technologists that build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, the sun, our solar system, and the universe.

    Named for American rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the center was established in 1959 as NASA’s first space flight complex. Goddard and its several facilities are critical in carrying out NASA’s missions of space exploration and scientific discovery.

    NASA Goddard Campus
    NASA/Goddard Campus
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  • richardmitnick 10:24 am on March 18, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From U Colorado: “More surprises in store for the New Horizons spacecraft?” 

    U Colorado

    University of Colorado Boulder

    March 17, 2016
    No writer credit found

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    Students at CU-Boulder, who built a dust counter for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, have been eyeing the data for decade now. And the results are showing the solar system really is pretty barren if you put aside the planets, rings, moons, comets and asteroids.

    The Student Dust Counter (SDC) found only a handful of dust grains, the building blocks of planets, when the spacecraft whipped by Pluto at 31,000 miles per hour last July. Data show the space environment around Pluto and its moons contains only about six dust particles per cubic mile, says Professor Fran Bagenal, who leads the New Horizons Particles and Plasma Team.

    “The bottom line is that space is mostly empty,” explains Bagenal, a faculty member at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). “Any debris created when Pluto’s moons were captured or created during impacts has long since been removed by planetary processes.”

    Since its launch in 2006, SDC has identified a few thousand microscopic dust particles, the building blocks of both our solar system and the universe and which can give researchers clues about how the solar system was formed billions of years ago and how it works today.

    “CU-Boulder is the only place in the world where students could have built an instrument that eventually flew off to another planet,” says Bagenal.

    A lot of dust is on the horizon for New Horizons, which is now on the edge of the Kuiper Belt, a vast region thought to span more than a billion miles beyond Neptune’s orbit.

    Kuiper Belt
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt beyond the orbit of Neptune. (Scale in AU; epoch as of January 2015.)

    the Kuiper Belt is believed to harbor at least 70,000 objects more than 60 miles in diameter and contain samples of ancient material created during the solar system’s violent formation some 4.5 billion years ago.

    “Now we are now starting to see seeing a slow but steady increase in the impact rate of larger particles, possibly indicating that we already have entered the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt,” says physics Professor Mihaly Horanyi, the principal investigator for the SDC.

    A new study involving Bagenal, Horanyi, CU-Boulder doctoral student Marcus Piquette and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) postdoctoral researcher Jamey Szalay, who received his doctorate in physics from CU-Boulder last year, was just published in Science.

    The CU-Boulder dust counter is a thin film resting on a honeycombed aluminum structure the size of a cake pan mounted on the spacecraft’s exterior. A small electronic box functions as the instrument’s “brain” to assess each individual dust particle that strikes the detector, allowing the students to infer the mass of each particle.

    A revolving cast of more than 20 CU-Boulder students, primarily undergraduates, worked on designing and building the SDC for New Horizons between 2002 and 2005. Several students and researchers are now assessing data from the flyby.

    “Our instrument has been soaring through our solar system’s dust disk and gathering data since launch,” said Szalay, who works at SwRI headquarters in San Antonio. “It’s going to be very exciting to get into the Kuiper Belt and see what we find there.”

    New Horizons is traveling at a mind-blowing 750,000 miles a day. Images from closest approach were taken from roughly 7,700 miles above Pluto’s surface. The spacecraft, about the size of a baby grand piano, carries six other instruments.

    The next and final target of New Horizons is a 30-mile-in diameter Kuiper Belt object named 2014 MU69, which the spacecraft is expected to pass in January 2019.

    Funding for student dust counter came primarily through the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which manages New Horizons, and SwRI. LASP also has contributed funds to help pay students working on SDC.

    See the full article here .

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    U Colorado Campus

    As the flagship university of the state of Colorado, CU-Boulder is a dynamic community of scholars and learners situated on one of the most spectacular college campuses in the country. As one of 34 U.S. public institutions belonging to the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) – and the only member in the Rocky Mountain region – we have a proud tradition of academic excellence, with five Nobel laureates and more than 50 members of prestigious academic academies.

    CU-Boulder has blossomed in size and quality since we opened our doors in 1877 – attracting superb faculty, staff, and students and building strong programs in the sciences, engineering, business, law, arts, humanities, education, music, and many other disciplines.

    Today, with our sights set on becoming the standard for the great comprehensive public research universities of the new century, we strive to serve the people of Colorado and to engage with the world through excellence in our teaching, research, creative work, and service.

     
  • richardmitnick 2:59 pm on August 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From NASA: “NASA’s New Horizons Team Selects Potential Kuiper Belt Flyby Target” 

    NASA

    NASA

    Aug. 28, 2015
    Editor: Tricia Talbert

    1
    Artist’s impression of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Pluto-like object in the distant Kuiper Belt. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

    NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons

    The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 (formerly labeled 1110113Y in the context of the Hubble Space Telescope, and 11 and PT1 in the context of the New Horizons mission) that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto.

    1
    An annotated overlay of 5 Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Camera 3 images of 2014 MU69 taken on June 24, 2014.

    3
    Kuiper Belt

    This remote KBO was one of two identified as potential destinations and the one recommended to NASA by the New Horizons team. Although NASA has selected 2014 MU69 as the target, as part of its normal review process the agency will conduct a detailed assessment before officially approving the mission extension to conduct additional science.

    “Even as the New Horizon’s spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and chief of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. “While discussions whether to approve this extended mission will take place in the larger context of the planetary science portfolio, we expect it to be much less expensive than the prime mission while still providing new and exciting science.”

    Like all NASA missions that have finished their main objective but seek to do more exploration, the New Horizons team must write a proposal to the agency to fund a KBO mission. That proposal – due in 2016 – will be evaluated by an independent team of experts before NASA can decide about the go-ahead.

    Early target selection was important; the team needs to direct New Horizons toward the object this year in order to perform any extended mission with healthy fuel margins. New Horizons will perform a series of four maneuvers in late October and early November to set its course toward 2014 MU69 – nicknamed “PT1” (for “Potential Target 1”) – which it expects to reach on January 1, 2019. Any delays from those dates would cost precious fuel and add mission risk.

    “2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “Moreover, this KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”

    New Horizons was originally designed to fly beyond the Pluto system and explore additional Kuiper Belt objects. The spacecraft carries extra hydrazine fuel for a KBO flyby; its communications system is designed to work from far beyond Pluto; its power system is designed to operate for many more years; and its scientific instruments were designed to operate in light levels much lower than it will experience during the 2014 MU69 flyby.”

    The 2003 National Academy of Sciences’ Planetary Decadal Survey (“New Frontiers in the Solar System”) strongly recommended that the first mission to the Kuiper Belt include flybys of Pluto and small KBOs, in order to sample the diversity of objects in that previously unexplored region of the solar system. The identification of PT1, which is in a completely different class of KBO than Pluto, potentially allows New Horizons to satisfy those goals.

    But finding a suitable KBO flyby target was no easy task. Starting a search in 2011 using some of the largest ground-based telescopes on Earth, the New Horizons team found several dozen KBOs, but none were reachable within the fuel supply available aboard the spacecraft.

    The powerful Hubble Space Telescope came to the rescue in summer 2014, discovering five objects, since narrowed to two, within New Horizons’ flight path. Scientists estimate that PT1 is just under 30 miles (about 45 kilometers) across; that’s more than 10 times larger and 1,000 times more massive than typical comets, like the one the Rosetta mission is now orbiting, but only about 0.5 to 1 percent of the size (and about 1/10,000th the mass) of Pluto. As such, PT1 is thought to be like the building blocks of Kuiper Belt planets such as Pluto.

    2
    Path of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft toward its next potential target, the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed “PT1” (for “Potential Target 1”) by the New Horizons team. NASA must approve any New Horizons extended mission to explore a KBO. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Alex Parker

    Unlike asteroids, KBOs have been heated only slightly by the Sun, and are thought to represent a well preserved, deep-freeze sample of what the outer solar system was like following its birth 4.6 billion years ago.

    “There’s so much that we can learn from close-up spacecraft observations that we’ll never learn from Earth, as the Pluto flyby demonstrated so spectacularly,” said New Horizons science team member John Spencer, also of SwRI. “The detailed images and other data that New Horizons could obtain from a KBO flyby will revolutionize our understanding of the Kuiper Belt and KBOs.”

    The New Horizons spacecraft – currently 3 billion miles [4.9 billion kilometers] from Earth – is just starting to transmit the bulk of the images and other data, stored on its digital recorders, from its historic July encounter with the Pluto system. The spacecraft is healthy and operating normally.

    New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.

    See the full article here.

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    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 1:06 pm on July 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From AAAS: “Potential geysers spotted on Pluto” 

    AAAS

    AAAS

    17 July 2015
    Eric Hand

    1
    Smooth plains of ice form polygons some 30 kilometers across in Sputnik Planum, the latest region revealed in close-up images by New Horizons. In the lower right, pits dot the landscape and dark hills protrude above the plains.

    Today, NASA’s New Horizons team unveiled the latest trove of geological goodies in close-up pictures of the surface of Pluto: hummocky hills that rise up above smooth plains of ice, patches of ice pocked by eroded pits, and troughs that form the boundaries of mysterious polygonal structures. Most tantalizing of all, the team has spotted streaks of material that may have blown downwind from dark spots. Although the team is not yet ready to declare that these spots are geysers shooting plumes above Pluto, scientists say the spots and streaks resemble actively spewing geysers on Neptune’s moon Triton that were discovered in 1989.

    The evidence is accumulating that Pluto is an active world, and not only as a place shaped by top-down atmospheric processes of frost and wind and sublimating ice. There also appear to be processes working from the bottom up: forces that lift up water ice mountains the size of the Rocky Mountains and allow them to sit next to smooth plains of ice that, the team suspects, have been resurfaced as recently as within the past 100 million years—or even last week.

    “Have a look at the icy frozen plains of Pluto,” said Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, as he revealed a glimpse of a region named Sputnik Planum in a press conference today at NASA headquarters. “Who would have expected this kind of complexity?”

    The team released the first results from measurements made as the spacecraft passed behind Pluto into its shadow. By measuring the way sunlight was eclipsed around the rim of Pluto, the team was able to analyze its atmosphere—and rule out models showing a turbulent atmosphere in favor of one that is more sluggish. Even with a more stagnant atmosphere, the part of it closest to the surface could still harbor winds blowing at a meter per second or two—enough to move tiny particles of ice around, says Randy Gladstone, a mission co-investigator at SwRI in San Antonio, Texas.

    But the pictures, as usual, stole the show. Sputnik Planum is a region along the southern fringe of the left ventricle of the “heart,” now informally called Tombaugh Regio after Pluto’s discoverer. “I’m still having to remind myself to take deep breaths,” says Jeff Moore, a mission co-investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. “The landscape is just astoundingly amazing.” To underscore the point, scientists used New Horizons’ terrain measurements to simulate a dramatic flyover video of the area and a nearby ice mountain range called Norgay Montes (see below).

    Moore says that one of the few terrains that invites a confident diagnosis are the pitted regions, which form as ice sublimates into the atmosphere. He cannot say whether the hills are features that were pushed up above the surrounding plains, or whether they are composed of tougher materials that resisted erosion as the rest of the region wore down. “They can either be popping up or emerging from an erosion-lowering process,” he says. The polygonal troughs are also mysterious, he says. He doesn’t know whether they result from convection in the interior—the large-scale patterns of heat upwelling in Pluto’s mantle—or from contracting ice, analogously to the way mud cracks form on Earth.

    Moore says it’s likely that the Sputnik Planum terrain—which also contains the geyser like spots—extends all the way up into the left ventricle of the heart. Stern presented chemical evidence that this entire region is enriched in carbon monoxide ice. It could be either a pool of very thick layers of ice that welled up from below, or just a centimeter-thick veneer of carbon monoxide snow from above. Moore says the jury is still out on whether Tombaugh Regio was emplaced from below or shaped from above. Quite possibly, he says, both processes are in play: The terrain may have been deposited in a bout of activity a long time ago, and since been eroded. “It could be there’s a source region there,” Stern says. “It’s a very special place on the planet.”

    New Horizons, a spacecraft the size of a baby grand piano, on Tuesday made its closest approach past Pluto, flying within 12,500 kilometers of its surface and making a first-ever reconnaissance of an object in the Kuiper belt, the region of icy worlds beyond Neptune.

    2
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt beyond the orbit of Neptune (scale in AU; epoch as of January 2015).

    But images from Pluto are being returned to Earth in a trickle over the course of 16 months, because of the vast distances and the modest power of New Horizon’s radio antenna. NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green says the spacecraft has returned only 1% to 2% of the data so far.

    In pictures NASA released on Wednesday, the big surprise was mountains of water ice rising 3500 meters up from strikingly smooth, crater-free surfaces. The lack of craters—also seen on Charon, Pluto’s largest moon—is evidence for youthfulness, and geological activity that could pave over the surfaces in fresh icy materials. This was unexpected, because many thought that the internal heat sources within Pluto and Charon, leftover from their formation in a giant impact billions of years ago, would have dissipated long ago.

    Larry Soderblom, a retired scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, who helped explore Neptune’s moon Triton on NASA’s Voyager mission, is impressed by both the similarities and differences between that world and Pluto. Pluto is the largest Kuiper belt object; Triton is thought to be a captured one. Both harbor smooth surfaces that suggest repaving driven by internal heating. But where that activity on Triton can be driven by the tidal pull of Neptune, scientists are scratching their heads over what could be driving it on Pluto. There are other differences between the worlds, Soderblom says: Triton lacks Pluto’s tall mountains and its rugged, ropy pits. “Everywhere we go, we’re surprised,” he says. “We should know better by now.”

    NASA is planning its next press conference on 24 July. After that, image retrievals from New Horizons’ cameras will pause for nearly 2 months while the team focuses on gathering data from its particle and plasma instruments. In August, the team plans to choose between two candidate Kuiper belt objects—far smaller than Pluto—and then steer the spacecraft to an encounter with it in 2019. The $720 million mission is being operated by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

    With additional reporting by Richard Kerr.

    See the full article here.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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