Tagged: NASA New Horizons Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • richardmitnick 1:40 pm on May 4, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From SwRI via KSAT: “Inst­ruments on Pluto space probe built at Southwest Research Institute” 

    SwRI bloc

    Southwest Research Institute

    1
    KSAT

    In just a few weeks, a tiny space probe launched in 2006 will finally reach it’s destination — Pluto.

    The New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to fly by the dwarf planet located in the outskirts of our solar system.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons

    In mid-July, the probe will give scientists their best view of the icy object and it’s moon Charon, and will collect data that could help them understand how planets form.

    A group of scientists at San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute are playing a big role in the historic mission.

    “It was launched in 2006, flew by Jupiter in 2007 to get a little boost of speed and now it’s almost at Pluto, so it’s been traveling pretty fast,” said New Horizons mission co-investigator Randy Gladstone. “It has been a long haul and it’s not for people who want instant gratification.”

    When the New Horizons probe was launched nine years ago, Pluto was still a planet. Before the end of its first year in space, the ninth planet was demoted to dwarf status, but don’t think for a second that has diminished the excitement scientists at SwRI are feeling right now.

    “This is an exciting one because it’s going somewhere we haven’t looked at before very closely, and that it’s taken so long to get there,” Gladstone said. “It is the last object of this size in our solar system that’s going to be looked at for the first time up close. Pictures of Pluto from the Hubble Space Telescope are just fuzzy little blobs, so we’re going to turn those fuzzy blobs into real worlds that have never been seen before.”

    The probe is expected to make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14 and then continue on, exploring Pluto’s galactic neighborhood known as the Kuiper Belt.

    “Like most reconnaissance missions, this one is just flying by Pluto. It’s not going to stop and go into orbit, it’s just going to fly by and take as much data as it can,” Gladstone said. “Then it’s going to go out into the Kuiper Belt and try to look at a Kuiper Belt object, which are another class of interesting objects in the solar system, much smaller, and then it just keeps on going out into the galaxy.”

    The probe is the fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth and is no larger than a grand piano, but its mission could produce some big results.

    Two instruments on board New Horizons that will help unlock Pluto’s secrets were designed, tested and built at SwRI in San Antonio.

    4
    New Horizons instrumentation

    One of those instruments is called SWAP and it’s job is to measure the solar winds at Pluto.

    “That tells us about how fast Pluto’s atmosphere is escaping, how it interacts with the solar wind tells you how much atmosphere is coming off Pluto,” Gladstone said.

    Principle scientist Michael Davis was involved in the design and building of the second San Antonio built instrument known as ALICE, an ultraviolet spectrometer.

    “It watches ultraviolet photons around Pluto that are caused by the sun’s interaction with Pluto and it also looks at things like the sun as they set behind Pluto,” Davis said. “So we will learn a lot about the atmosphere of Pluto by looking with ALICE.”

    Davis said his main role is making sure all the instruments are working properly and helping to analyze the data as it comes in. It’s a big responsibility but he’s confident everything will work as planned.

    “We’ve had a bunch of tests along the way to make sure everything works, so I’m not too worried about it not working or something going wrong, but it will be interesting to see what comes back from it because no one’s ever seen it before,” Davis said. “This is the first time anyone goes to Pluto and it’s great to be a part of it.”

    Just like everything else with the mission, scientists will have to be patient for the data to make it back to Earth.

    “We’re a long way out there with a tiny spacecraft,” Gladstone said. “It takes about a year to get all that data back so eventually it will all come back and we’ll have plenty to play with for the next 10 years.”

    The probe will keep traveling past Pluto and out of the solar system, only the fifth spacecraft to leave the solar system, perhaps solving more mysteries along the way.

    “There’s this whole new area out there called the outer solar system where the Kuiper Belt is and Pluto is a member of the Kuiper Belt, but there’s thousands of them out there, and there’s many, many objects the size of Pluto out there that are very interesting looking and they’re a key component of the solar system,” Gladstone said. “The way they were distributed helped form the entire solar system.”

    One thing the New Horizon’s mission will not do is end the debate over whether Pluto should still be considered a planet.

    “I don’t see that debate going away any time soon, there’s so many opinions on it,” Galdstone said. “It’s an interesting discussion, but it’s never going to end I don’t think.”

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    SwRI Campus

    Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is an independent, nonprofit applied research and development organization. The staff of nearly 2,800 specializes in the creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences. SwRI’s technical divisions offer a wide range of technical expertise and services in such areas as engine design and development, emissions certification testing, fuels and lubricants evaluation, chemistry, space science, nondestructive evaluation, automation, mechanical engineering, electronics, and more.

     
  • richardmitnick 10:58 am on March 15, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From Space.com: “New Horizons: Exploring Pluto and Beyond” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    January 27, 2015
    Elizabeth Howell

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft II
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    New Horizons is a NASA spacecraft on its way to the dwarf planet Pluto. It scooted by Jupiter in 2007, and will pass by Pluto in July 2015 before possibly heading farther into the Kuiper Belt — a massive zone of icy bodies beyond Neptune.

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

    Investigators with the Hubble Space Telescope have identified a few targets for the spacecraft after it zooms by Pluto and its moons, but the mission extension depends on how well New Horizons is performing at that time and if it can receive approval in NASA’s budget.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA/ESA HUbble

    When the spacecraft reaches Pluto, it will be only the fifth one to head so far away from Earth (the other ones being Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, and Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which are either in the outer solar system or in the case of Voyager 1, interstellar space.)

    NASA Pioneer 10
    Pioneer 10

    NASA Pioneer 11
    Pioneer 11

    NASA Voyager 1
    Voyager 1

    NASA Voyager 2
    Voyager 2

    Pluto’s distance — about 3 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth — presented power challenges for New Horizon’s designers, since the sun’s rays are too weak to generate power. There will also be long communications delays for those staying in touch with the 1,054-pound spacecraft; at Pluto, it will take 4.5 hours for a one-way message to get there from Earth.

    Further, our understanding of the Pluto system keeps changing. The planet was discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory.

    Lowell Observatory
    Lowell Observatory

    Since then, we’ve discovered new moons — which can also be seen as dangerous obstacles for a spacecraft, if not accounted for. And in 2006 — shortly after New Horizons launched — astronomers voted to demote Pluto from its planetary status. New Horizons carries some of Tombaugh’s ashes.

    Design challenges for long missions

    Spacecraft typically have a set design lifetime, similar to warranties on electronics or cars. Over time, solar particles, cosmic rays and other phenomena can degrade the surface of the spacecraft or mess up the electronics. This makes long missions such as New Horizons especially challenging.

    “You’ve got to remember that it takes 9.5 years to even get to where we want to take the mission,” said Glen Fountain, the New Horizons mission project manager from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in a 2006 interview with NASA.

    “So we need a highly reliable system,” he said. “So, we have built into the electronics nearly two of everything. We are redundant. We have two guidance control processors, computers. We have two command and data handling processors. We have two solid-state recorders. Even if there is a failure, you can switch from one to the other.”

    Another question, Fountain acknowledged, was how to handle power when the sun is too weak to provide solar power. New Horizons carries nuclear power (more precisely, a radioisotope thermoelectric generator) on board to solve this problem.

    Mission Control kept the spacecraft in deep hibernation after a quick pass by Jupiter in February 2007. New Horizons underwent periodic wakeups until a last emerging from hibernation for good in December 2014, which will last through the “Pluto encounter” of 2015.

    NASA did a detailed systems check of the spacecraft once a year to make sure it’s working properly and to, if necessary, make adjustments to its path to Pluto. The spacecraft also ferried a basic signal back to Earth once a week.

    Zipping by Jupiter

    New Horizons launched Jan. 19, 2006, on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A power outage and high winds delayed two previous launch attempts, but New Horizons made it safely into space on the third try.

    The spacecraft’s first destination was Jupiter, in February and March 2007. New Horizons passed by less than 1.4 million miles (2.4 million km) of the solar system’s largest planet, making it the first spacecraft to swing by since the Galileo probe finished its mission at Jupiter in 2003.

    NASA Galileo
    Galileo

    Among New Horizons’ first pictures were some of Io, Jupiter’s volcanic moon. The spacecraft captured the clearest pictures ever of the Tvashtar volcano on Io, showing volcanic fallout that was bigger than the state of Texas.

    Additionally, the spacecraft flew through a stream of charged particles swirling behind Jupiter. It found large bubbles of charged particles, or plasma, and also revealed variations in the stream.

    At the time, astronomers said the observations could help with understanding the environment around “hot Jupiter” planets found at other stars.

    Plans for Pluto

    One of the principal aims of New Horizons is to figure out the origins of Pluto and its companion Charon, a moon that is more than half Pluto’s size. At the time, Pluto and Charon were considered a double planet (although the definition of Pluto changed, as will be explained below.)

    NASA believed Charon formed when Pluto hit another big object long ago, creating debris that circled around Pluto and eventually formed Charon. It’s a similar theory to how Earth’s moon formed, so the scientists hoped to understand the creation of our moon better by looking at Charon’s origins.

    Scientists are also eager to learn about the visual differences between Charon and Pluto. From Hubble observations, researchers deduced Pluto is far more reflective than Charon, and that Pluto has an atmosphere while Charon does not.

    NASA further speculated that Pluto might even have volcanic activity, because the Voyager 2 spacecraft spotted possible volcanoes (to researchers’ surprise) on Triton, a moon of Neptune that is of a similar size and composition.

    New Horizons crossed Neptune’s orbit in August 2014, and in September, the spacecraft team released pictures that the machine took of a small moon called Hydra that summer. The goal was not only to take the pictures, but to do a simulated “satellite search” — it’s possible there are other moons of Pluto that are just waiting to be discovered, when the spacecraft gets closer.

    The spacecraft emerged from hibernation again in December 2014, representing the first of a series of milestones as New Horizons approaches Pluto. “Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before,” said Glen Fountain, New Horizons project manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, in a statement. “Symbolically, however, this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”

    Pluto’s planetary status changes

    Ten years can be a long time in planetary science, and that is particularly true of Pluto. Since New Horizons left our planet in 2006, we’ve discovered another moon nearby Pluto. Planners have made course corrections to keep the spacecraft away from Pluto’s moons.

    Further, Pluto was demoted from its position as the ninth planet in our solar system. In August 2006, members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the global body that governs astronomy names and other matters — met in a general assembly to decide on the definition of a planet.

    This vote was called in response to the recent discoveries of large bodies in the Kuiper Belt, an area beyond Neptune believed to contain trillions of objects.

    On Aug. 24, 2006, IAU representatives determined three features all planets must possess:

    They must orbit the sun (and not another body, as a moon orbits a planet).
    They must have enough mass to form a round shape.
    They must be large enough to clean out bits of rock and other matter in the area around their orbits.

    Pluto didn’t meet all the classifications, and was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

    The decision drew fire from Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission. “I’m embarrassed for astronomy. Less than 5 percent of the world’s astronomers voted,” he said in a 2006 interview with Space.com. “This definition stinks, for technical reasons.”

    The decision is still controversial, years later. Little is known about Pluto because it is so far away from Earth, but we have been able to increase our understanding of it by peering at the planet with the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories. More fuel may be added to the debate as NASA’s Dawn spacecraft gets close-up to Ceres this year, one of the largest members of our solar system’s asteroid belt.

    NASA Dawn Spacescraft
    NASA/Dawn

    3
    An overhead view of the New Horizons spacecraft’s path across Uranus’ orbit.
    Credit: NASA, JHU/APL

    Post-Pluto

    It is expected that New Horizon’s arrival at Pluto will give us more data about its surface, its moons and its environment, which can better refine our knowledge of the dwarf planet and its system.

    Over the northern hemisphere summer of 2014, investigators used the Hubble Space Telescope to see if there were any Kuiper Belt objects within reach of New Horizons after it concludes its Pluto mission. Scientists identified three candidates, with each of them at least 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond the dwarf planet.

    The team plans to make a pitch to NASA for extended operations in 2016, to take a closer look at one of these worlds. Meanwhile, even after the mission ends, a group of scientists, artists, engineers and more are proposing placing a sort of message from Earth on the free hard drive space on the New Horizons spacecraft.

    “When New Horizons gets past Pluto, [and] has done all its data and is going on the slow boat to the heliopause [the boundary between the solar system and interstellar space], then it might be possible to just reprogram about 100 megabytes of its memory and upload a new sights and sounds of Earth that are not created by a small group of scientists but, in fact, are globally crowdsourced,” said Jill Tarter, who is the co-founder of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, in 2013.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 3:47 am on February 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA New Horizons,   

    From The Conversation : “NASA missions may re-elevate Pluto and Ceres from dwarf planets to full-on planet status” 

    Conversation
    The Conversation

    February 25 2015
    David A Weintraub, Professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University

    1
    Two views of Ceres acquired by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft ten hours apart on Feb. 12, 2015, from a distance of about 52,000 miles as the dwarf planet rotated. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

    Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, and NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive at this dwarf planet on March 6, 2015.

    2

    NASA Dawn Spacescraft
    Dawn


    Pluto is the largest object in the Kuiper belt, and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will arrive at this dwarf planet on July 15, 2015.

    2
    Kuiper Belt

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons

    These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.

    The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.

    Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.

    Unlike the larger planets, however, Ceres, like Pluto, according to the IAU definition, “has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” The asteroid belt is, apparently, Ceres’ neighborhood while the Kuiper Belt is Pluto’s neighborhood – though no definition of a planet’s neighborhood exists, and no agreed upon understanding of what “clearing the neighborhood” yet exists. Furthermore, no broad-based agreement exists as to why “clearing the neighborhood” need be a requirement in order for an object to be considered a planet.

    Some planetary astronomers would argue that were the Earth placed in the Kuiper Belt, it would not be able to clear its neighborhood and thus would not be considered, by the IAU definition, a planet; apparently location matters. Here a planet, there not a planet. I’d argue that location shouldn’t matter; instead, the intrinsic properties of the objects themselves should matter more. And so we are led back to Ceres and Pluto.

    Never before visited by human spacecraft, Ceres and Pluto, as we will soon bear witness, are both evolving, changing worlds. Yesterday, Ceres and Pluto were strangers, distant, barely known runt members of our solar system. By the end of this calendar year, however, we will have showered both objects with our passion and our attention, we will have welcomed them both into our embrace. And we almost certainly will once again call both of them planets.

    Ceres, temporarily a planet

    Ceres was discovered on New Year’s Day in 1801, by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a member of an international team of astronomers dubbed the Celestial Police, who were searching for a supposedly missing planet in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. When discovered, Ceres was immediately recognized as a planet, the eighth one known at the time (neither Neptune nor Pluto had been discovered yet).

    But within a few years, other objects in the asteroid belt were discovered and Ceres no longer seemed to stand out as far from the crowd. In 1802, the great astronomer [Sir Frederick] William Herschel suggested that Ceres and Pallas and any other smaller solar system objects should be called asteroids – meaning star-like. In telescope images, they were so tiny that they looked point-like, like stars, rather than disk-like, like planets. And so, more than a century before Pluto was discovered, Ceres was plutoed.

    3
    Animation of rotating Ceres, made from a series of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on February 4, 2015, at a distance of about 90,000 miles from the planet.

    With increasing knowledge and familiarity, we’ll no longer be able to identify meaningful criteria to keep these good planets down.

    These two events will make 2015 an exciting year for solar system exploration and discovery. But there is much more to this story than mere science. I expect 2015 will be the year when general consensus, built upon our new knowledge of these two objects, will return Pluto and add Ceres to our family of solar system planets.

    The efforts of a very small clique of Pluto-haters within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) plutoed Pluto in 2006. Of the approximately 10,000 internationally registered members of the IAU in 2006, only 237 voted in favor of the resolution redefining Pluto as a “dwarf planet” while 157 voted against; the other 9,500 members were not present at the closing session of the IAU General Assembly in Prague at which the vote to demote Pluto was taken. Yet Pluto’s official planetary status was snatched away.

    Ceres and Pluto are both spheroidal objects, like Mercury, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. That’s part of the agreed upon definition of a planet. They both orbit a star, the Sun, like Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune. That’s also part of the widely accepted definition of a planet.

    Unlike the larger planets, however, Ceres, like Pluto, according to the IAU definition, “has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” The asteroid belt is, apparently, Ceres’ neighborhood while the Kuiper Belt is Pluto’s neighborhood – though no definition of a planet’s neighborhood exists, and no agreed upon understanding of what “clearing the neighborhood” yet exists. Furthermore, no broad-based agreement exists as to why “clearing the neighborhood” need be a requirement in order for an object to be considered a planet.

    Some planetary astronomers would argue that were the Earth placed in the Kuiper Belt, it would not be able to clear its neighborhood and thus would not be considered, by the IAU definition, a planet; apparently location matters. Here a planet, there not a planet. I’d argue that location shouldn’t matter; instead, the intrinsic properties of the objects themselves should matter more. And so we are led back to Ceres and Pluto.

    Never before visited by human spacecraft, Ceres and Pluto, as we will soon bear witness, are both evolving, changing worlds. Yesterday, Ceres and Pluto were strangers, distant, barely known runt members of our solar system. By the end of this calendar year, however, we will have showered both objects with our passion and our attention, we will have welcomed them both into our embrace. And we almost certainly will once again call both of them planets.

    Ceres, temporarily a planet

    Ceres was discovered on New Year’s Day in 1801, by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, a member of an international team of astronomers dubbed the Celestial Police, who were searching for a supposedly missing planet in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. When discovered, Ceres was immediately recognized as a planet, the eighth one known at the time (neither Neptune nor Pluto had been discovered yet).

    But within a few years, other objects in the asteroid belt were discovered and Ceres no longer seemed to stand out as far from the crowd. In 1802, the great astronomer [Sir Frederick] William Herschel suggested that Ceres and Pallas and any other smaller solar system objects should be called asteroids – meaning star-like. In telescope images, they were so tiny that they looked point-like, like stars, rather than disk-like, like planets. And so, more than a century before Pluto was discovered, Ceres was plutoed.

    6
    Animation of rotating Ceres, made from a series of images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on February 4, 2015, at a distance of about 90,000 miles from the planet. NASA

    But Ceres does still stand out. It’s the largest asteroid, by far, nearly 1,000 kilometers across (twice as large in diameter as Vesta, the second largest asteroid), though not perfectly spherical in shape.

    As happened inside Earth and other planets, planetary scientists think that long ago, the denser material in Ceres separated from the lighter material and sank to form a core.

    Astronomers think Ceres is rich in water – as much as one-third of Ceres might be water – and may have a thin atmosphere. Bright, white spots on its surface might even be large frozen lakes. Ceres may, in fact, have as much fresh water as Earth, have Earth-like polar caps, and might even have a sub-surface liquid ocean layer, like Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

    Beginning this month, we’ll start to learn more about these tantalizing possibilities. With our increasing knowledge of and familiarity with Ceres, we will no longer be able to identify meaningful criteria that will allow us to continue to classify Ceres as not-a-planet. Ceres will continue to be a small planet, but in 2015 we will come to understand that dwarf planets are planets, too.

    Pluto’s short planetary reign

    Pluto also has an unusual orbit, as it crosses Neptune’s orbit, though it does so in such a way that it can never collide with Neptune.

    Pluto’s modern-day troubles began in 1992, when astronomers David Jewitt and Jane Luu discovered the first objects in the region of the solar system now known as the Kuiper Belt. Whereas the asteroid belt where Ceres resides is made mostly of house- and mountain-sized rocks that orbit the Sun in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the Kuiper Belt is made mostly of house- and mountain-sized chunks of ice that orbit the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune. Pluto, as it turns out, is one of the biggest objects in the Kuiper Belt.

    So what is Pluto?

    7
    Image of Pluto and its moon Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on January 25, 2015, from a distance of 125 million miles. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

    Pluto is the last unexplored planet in our solar system. And the Kuiper Belt may contain hundreds of other planetary worlds like Pluto. These may be the most numerous worlds in the solar system; they may contain, together, the most total surface area of all the solid-surfaced planets.

    8
    Pluto and its five moons – as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope in July, 2012. NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    Hubble

    Pluto has one large moon, Charon, and at least four small moons: Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx. It has an atmosphere that expands and contracts as Pluto warms and cools during its 248 year orbit around the Sun. The surface is likely rich in water ice, enriched with methane and nitrogen and carbon monoxide frosts; these ices might contain complex organic molecules.

    The New Horizons mission is poised to answer some of our myriad questions about Pluto. How did it form? What is the atmosphere made of? What is the surface like? Does Pluto have a magnetic field? What are the moons like? Does Pluto have a subsurface ocean? Is the surface of Pluto’s moon Charon pure water ice?

    Pluto has guarded its secrets for four and half billion years. But in a few months, a few intrepid humans will pull back the curtain on Pluto and say “Hello, Pluto, we’re here.” And Pluto will begin to share her secrets with us. When she does, as with Ceres, our familiarity with Pluto will help us recognize that Pluto is, was, and has always been a planet, albeit a small one.

    We only get to visit Ceres and Pluto for the very first time, once. This year. March 6 and July 15. In your lifetime. In this incredible year of the dwarf planet. Get ready to party. Ceres and Pluto are coming home.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The Conversation US launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.
    Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.
    Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.

     
  • richardmitnick 7:14 pm on January 25, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA New Horizons   

    From NASA: “The PI’s Perspective – Something Special in the Air” 

    NASA

    NASA

    January 23, 2015
    Alan Stern

    The earliest stages of our Pluto encounter have begun, and New Horizons remains healthy and on course.

    New Horizons will make history when it flies by Pluto on July 14.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons spacecraft

    Already, the SWAP, PEPSSI and SDC instruments are taking daily science data — measuring the charged particle and dust environment of the space near Pluto’s orbit. Next week, on Jan. 25, the sensitive LORRI long focal length camera aboard New Horizons will begin imaging the Pluto system for navigation purposes. This will yield dozens of images that our navigation teams will analyze for positional information about Pluto and Charon against star fields, allowing us to home in more accurately than by radio navigation from Earth alone.

    NASA New Horizons SWAP Instrument
    SWAP

    NASA New Horizons PEPSSI Instrument
    PEPSSI

    NASA New Horizons SDC Instrument
    SDC

    NASA New Horizons LORRI Camera
    LORRI

    But while New Horizons approaches the Pluto system ever more closely, there is a little time left to write about what’s in store, so let’s begin.

    In this update, I’m going to preview the atmospheric science we’ll do during the flyby. Next time, I’ll preview the surface geology and composition measurements we’re planning.

    But first I want to give you the basics of what we know about Pluto’s atmosphere, and Charon’s.

    Pluto’s atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen, just like Earth’s atmosphere. But its minor gases aren’t oxygen and argon – as on Earth – they are carbon monoxide and methane; other gases may also be present. Pluto’s atmospheric pressure is about the same as that in the Earth’s mesosphere, about 30 to 50 miles above the ground. Its atmosphere is known to display a mild greenhouse effect, as well as winds and, very likely, some hazes. There may even be clouds.

    We also know that Pluto’s atmosphere is rapidly escaping, much like the way the early Earth’s atmosphere escaped, in a process called hydrodynamic escape. This happens when molecules high in the atmosphere are hot enough to simply flow away, a little like a cup of water filled up from the bottom and brimming over the rim.

    As for Charon: it’s been speculated that this world, Pluto’s largest moon may, have an atmosphere. Perhaps it was captured (siphoned) off Pluto or created by internal activity or a recent cometary impact. But whatever (if anything) is there, it’s been too thin to find from Earth. New Horizons will attempt to do better.

    Our objectives for atmospheric science during the flyby match the recommendations from the scientific advisory committees that worked with NASA to conceive a Pluto flyby mission; they include:

    Determine how Pluto’s atmospheric pressure and temperature vary from the surface to high altitude.
    Determine the atmosphere’s complete composition.
    Measure the atmospheric escape rate.
    Determine if Pluto has an ionosphere.
    Determine how Pluto’s atmosphere varies from place to place, and with seasons and time of day.
    Search for an atmosphere at Charon.

    That’s a long and ambitious list of objectives, and we’re carrying a very capable suite of scientific instruments to probe all of these questions. Here’s a brief preview of the atmospheric science we’re planning for later this year, organized by instrument:

    REX is our radio science experiment. On closest-approach day — July 14 — REX will intercept a set of four 20-kilowatt beams of radio energy sent to Pluto by giant 70-meter-wide antennas in NASA’s Deep Space Network. By measuring how these radio beams refract (or bend) through Pluto’s atmosphere, REX can help us determine the base pressure and temperature of Pluto’s atmosphere, as well as how those quantities vary with altitude above Pluto’s surface. REX can also determine another atmospheric quantity: the density of ionospheric layers high over Pluto.

    NASA New Horizons REX
    REX

    Alice is our ultraviolet spectrometer. Many of the gases in Pluto’s atmosphere reveal themselves best at ultraviolet wavelengths. We’ll be using Alice over several weeks as we approach Pluto to search for emissions that reveal certain atomic gases like hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and argon in Pluto’s upper atmosphere. Then, on encounter day, we’ll fly into Pluto’s shadow and watch the Sun rise and set with Alice to determine the composition of the atoms and molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere as a function of height over the surface. We’ll also perform the same experiment at Charon to determine of it has a thin atmosphere and what that envelope may be made of. (REX will try to do the same, but it’s not as sensitive as Alice for detecting atmospheres as thin as Charon’s is likely to be.)

    NASA New Horizons ALICE Spectrometer
    ALICE

    PEPSSI, which stands for Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation, measures high-energy ions that originate in Pluto’s atmosphere and accelerate as they stream away in the solar wind. PEPSSI will determine the composition as well as the densities of these ions; this will help us pin down Pluto’s atmospheric composition and escape rate.

    SWAP, for Solar Wind Around Pluto, performs a clever measurement of Pluto’s total atmospheric escape rate. How? At some distance from Pluto, the atmospheric escape pressure balances with the incoming solar wind pressure – and the distance at which this occurs from Pluto reveals the rate of Pluto’s atmospheric escape. SWAP’s job is to accurately measure that distance by determining where the solar wind cuts off and Pluto’s atmosphere begins.

    LORRI (our Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) and Ralph are primarily surface imagers – not atmospheric instruments – but they can shed light on Pluto’s atmosphere by searching for clouds and hazes, both as New Horizons approaches and recedes. In fact, LORRI and Ralph could, in principle, make the first atmospheric detections of Pluto by New Horizons by capturing images of just such phenomena, perhaps even weeks before REX, Alice, PEPSSI and SWAP conduct their investigations.

    NASA New Horizons RALPH
    RALPH

    As you can see, we have a wide variety of ways to plumb Pluto’s atmosphere and search for one around Charon. The fun begins in May, and intensifies across June and July.

    Stay tuned – soon I won’t be talking about plans, I’ll be able to write about results!

    3
    Like Earth’s atmosphere, Pluto’s atmosphere is dominated by nitrogen gas. (Image: Compound Interest, http://www.compoundchem.com)

    As I close, I know you know that this is our last January before reaching our long-sought objective of reconnoitering Pluto and its system of moons. But what you may not know is that January is a very special month for the New Horizons team: We launched in January, our science team meets to plan ahead every January, and January is also when Clyde Tombaugh took the images of Sagittarius that initiated his discovery of Pluto. So hail to January, and also to this July when our explorations culminate — just around the bend!

    That’s it for now, but until I write again, I hope you’ll keep exploring—just as we do.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    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 4:36 pm on January 15, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA New Horizons   

    From SPACE.com: “NASA Pluto Probe Begins Science Observations Ahead of Epic Flyby” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    January 15, 2015
    Mike Wall

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons

    A NASA spacecraft’s epic Pluto encounter is officially underway.

    NASA’s New Horizons probe today (Jan. 15) began its six-month approach to Pluto, which will culminate with the first-ever close flyby of the dwarf planet on July 14.

    “We really are on Pluto’s doorstep,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said last month during a news conference at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

    A long journey

    The $700 million New Horizons mission blasted off in January 2006 with the aim of lifting the veil on Pluto. The dwarf planet has remained a mystery since its 1930 discovery because it’s so small and so far away. (On average, Pluto orbits about 40 times farther from the sun than Earth does.)

    The piano-size spacecraft rocketed away from Earth at more than 36,000 mph (58,000 km/h), faster than any other probe. It has now covered about 3 billion miles (4.8 billion kilometers) during its nine-year journey through deep space.

    “In a very real sense, this is the Everest of planetary exploration,” Stern said of New Horizons. “This mission represents the closing of the first era of planetary reconnaissance. We’ve made it to the farthest place, with the fastest spacecraft ever launched.”

    New Horizons will use seven different science instruments to study Pluto and its five known moons. The mission’s chief objectives include mapping the surface composition and temperature of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon; characterizing the atmosphere of Pluto and the geology of Pluto and Charon; and hunting for rings and additional satellites in the Pluto system.

    In the 1990s, researchers began to realize that Pluto is not a lonely misfit; rather, it’s just one of many dwarf planets and other icy denizens of the far-flung Kuiper Belt, which lies beyond Neptune’s orbit. So New Horizons’ observations should help researchers better understand an entire class of solar system bodies, mission team members said.

    1
    Kuiper Belt

    “We are going to the archetypal Kuiper Belt planet,” New Horizons co-investigator William McKinnon, of Washington University in St. Louis, said at the AGU news briefing. “This mission will revolutionize our understanding of how the planets in the Kuiper Belt work.”

    Small, icy worlds like Pluto are probably the most common type of planet in the entire universe, McKinnon added.

    The long encounter begins

    Though New Horizons remains about 134 million miles (216 million km) from Pluto, it has already begun taking the dwarf planet’s measure: Science observations began today, marking the beginning of “Approach Phase 1.”

    Many of the images New Horizons gathers during this phase will be used to keep the spacecraft on target toward Pluto. But some of the photos will be taken for scientific purposes, Stern said, and New Horizons will also characterize the Kuiper Belt environment using two different plasma sensors and a dust-counting instrument.

    The pace of scientific activity will really start picking up in April, Stern added. And by mid-May, New Horizons will be close enough to snap the best-ever images of Pluto. (The sharpest photos of the dwarf planet to date were taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope; they show Pluto as a blur of pixels.)

    It will only get more exciting from there. The most jaw-dropping images will be captured on and around July 14, when New Horizons zooms within about 6,000 miles (9,656 kilometers) of Pluto’s surface.

    The closest-approach pictures will not all be available right away, however. As a result of budget constraints, New Horizons does not have an articulated high-gain antenna, meaning the spacecraft must orient itself toward Earth to beam data home.

    But New Horizons will of course be peering intently at Pluto during and immediately after the flyby. While some images will come down to mission control during this time, high-volume transmission of closest-approach data likely won’t begin until early August, Stern said, and will continue for more than a year.

    “From a scientific standpoint, this is going to look a lot like an orbiter [mission],” he said. “The spacecraft is long gone from Pluto, but new data is raining down every week, and every month, for 16 months.”

    The Pluto flyby may not end New Horizons’ scientific work in the dark depths of the outer solar system: Stern and his team want to send the probe on to observe another Kuiper Belt object, and they’ve already identified two good candidates. If NASA funds this extended mission, New Horizons would reach its second and final target in 2019.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 11:58 am on November 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From DNews: “We’re Finally Going To Visit Pluto!” 

    Discovery News
    Discovery News

    New Horizons is set to wake up on December 6th, and it is on course to take a look at the dwarf planet Pluto! Amy is excited about this mission, and here’s why.

    New Horizons is set to wake up on December 6th, and it is on course to take a look at the dwarf planet Pluto! Amy is excited about this mission, and here’s why.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    Since being launched into space in January 2006, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has traveled nearly three billion miles to its mission, a six-month encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto. For about two-thirds of its flight time — 1,873 days from mid-2007 to late 2014 — it’s been in hibernation mode, in which much of the spacecraft is unpowered in order to reduce wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, lowering operations costs and freeing up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions. The entire spacecraft, including all of its payload, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs.

    p
    Pluto in rotation
    Aineias, NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute)

    On 3 p.m. Eastern Time on December 6, when the craft will be a mere 162 million miles away from Pluto, the craft will come out hibernation for the last time, do a systems check and transmit a signal back to Earth that it’s in “active” mode. Even traveling at the speed of light, these signals will take about four and a half hours to reach us.

    This is exciting for astronomers since this is the first-ever dedicated mission to Pluto and the first spacecraft to go beyond Saturn since Voyager. Obviously, New Horizons’s tech and instruments are a lot more modern than Voyager’s, which were from the 1970s. Pluto and its largest moon Charon are the only other binary system in our Solar System besides the Earth and the Moon, so we’re hoping that New Horizons will teach us as much about Earth as it does about the dwarf planet. Distant observations Pluto begin January 15 and will continue until late July 2015, with its closest approach to Pluto on July 14.

    NASA Voyager 1
    NASA/Voyager 1

    As it starts to gets closer to Pluto, the craft will be mapping the surface compositions and temperatures of Charon and Pluto, examining Pluto’s atmosphere, study Pluto’s smaller moons and search for additional moons and rings.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

     
  • richardmitnick 10:50 pm on November 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From Johns Hopkins: “New Horizons Set to Wake Up for Pluto Encounter” 

    Johns Hopkins
    Johns Hopkins University

    November 13, 2014
    No Writer Credit

    NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft comes out of hibernation for the last time on Dec. 6. Between now and then, while the Pluto-bound probe enjoys three more weeks of electronic slumber, work on Earth is well under way to prepare the spacecraft for a six-month encounter with the dwarf planet that begins in January.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    “New Horizons is healthy and cruising quietly through deep space – nearly three billion miles from home – but its rest is nearly over,” says Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. “It’s time for New Horizons to wake up, get to work, and start making history.”

    Since launching in January 2006, New Horizons has spent 1,873 days in hibernation – about two-thirds of its flight time – spread over 18 separate hibernation periods from mid-2007 to late 2014 that ranged from 36 days to 202 days long.

    In hibernation mode much of the spacecraft is unpowered; the onboard flight computer monitors system health and broadcasts a weekly beacon-status tone back to Earth. On average, operators woke New Horizons just over twice each year to check out critical systems, calibrate instruments, gather science data, rehearse Pluto-encounter activities and perform course corrections when necessary.

    New Horizons pioneered routine cruise-flight hibernation for NASA. Not only has hibernation reduced wear and tear on the spacecraft’s electronics, it lowered operations costs and freed up NASA Deep Space Network tracking and communication resources for other missions.

    Ready to Go

    New Horizons team members will give an overview of pre-Pluto preparations, as well as the science plans for the Pluto encounter, on Thursday, Nov. 13, at the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in Tucson, Ariz. The 90-minute briefing starts at noon (MST) and will be posted shortly afterward on the DPS meeting site.

    Next month’s wake-up call was preprogrammed into New Horizons’ on-board computer in August, commanding it come out of hibernation at 3 p.m. EST on Dec. 6. About 90 minutes later New Horizons will transmit word to Earth that it’s in “active” mode; those signals, even traveling at light speed, will need four hours and 25 minutes to reach home. Confirmation should reach the mission operations team at APL around 9:30 p.m. EST. At the time New Horizons will be more than 2.9 billion miles from Earth, and just 162 million miles – less than twice the distance between Earth and the sun – from Pluto.

    After several days of collecting navigation-tracking data, downloading and analyzing the cruise science and spacecraft housekeeping data stored on New Horizons’ digital recorders, the mission team will begin activities that include conducting final tests on the spacecraft’s science instruments and operating systems, and building and testing the computer-command sequences that will guide New Horizons through its flight to and reconnaissance of the Pluto system. Tops on the mission’s science list are characterizing the global geology and topography of Pluto and its large moon Charon, mapping their surface compositions and temperatures, examining Pluto’s atmospheric composition and structure, studying Pluto’s smaller moons and searching for new moons and rings.

    New Horizons’ seven-instrument science payload, developed under direction of Southwest Research Institute, includes advanced imaging infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, a compact multicolor camera, a high-resolution telescopic camera, two powerful particle spectrometers, a space-dust detector (designed and built by students at the University of Colorado) and two radio science experiments. The entire spacecraft, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt light bulbs.

    Distant observations of the Pluto system begin Jan. 15 and will continue until late July 2015; closest approach to Pluto is July 14.

    “We’ve worked years to prepare for this moment,” says Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at APL. “New Horizons might have spent most of its cruise time across nearly three billion miles of space sleeping, but our team has done anything but, conducting a flawless flight past Jupiter just a year after launch, putting the spacecraft through annual workouts, plotting out each step of the Pluto flyby and even practicing the entire Pluto encounter on the spacecraft. We are ready to go.”

    “The final hibernation wake up Dec. 6 signifies the end of an historic cruise across the entirety of our planetary system,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “We are almost on Pluto’s doorstep!”

    The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is the principal investigator and leads the mission; SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. APL designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.
    STEM Icon
    Stem Education Coalition
    Johns Hopkins Campus

    The Johns Hopkins University opened in 1876, with the inauguration of its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman. “What are we aiming at?” Gilman asked in his installation address. “The encouragement of research … and the advancement of individual scholars, who by their excellence will advance the sciences they pursue, and the society where they dwell.”

    The mission laid out by Gilman remains the university’s mission today, summed up in a simple but powerful restatement of Gilman’s own words: “Knowledge for the world.”

    What Gilman created was a research university, dedicated to advancing both students’ knowledge and the state of human knowledge through research and scholarship. Gilman believed that teaching and research are interdependent, that success in one depends on success in the other. A modern university, he believed, must do both well. The realization of Gilman’s philosophy at Johns Hopkins, and at other institutions that later attracted Johns Hopkins-trained scholars, revolutionized higher education in America, leading to the research university system as it exists today.

    ScienceSprings relies on technology from

    MAINGEAR computers

    Lenovo
    Lenovo

    Dell
    Dell

     
  • richardmitnick 10:51 am on October 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From SPACE.com: “Beyond Pluto: NASA Eyes Distant Targets for New Horizons Probe” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    October 13, 2014
    Mike Wall

    Pluto may not be the end of the line for a far-flung NASA spacecraft.

    NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted a few objects that the New Horizons probe might be able to explore after it zooms past the Pluto system during a highly anticipated flyby on July 14, 2015. Mission team members are assessing the candidates now, to get a better understanding of their orbits — a difficult task that could take a few more months.

    NASA Hubble Telescope
    NASA Hubble schematic
    NASA/ESA Hubble

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    “We hope to know before the year is out, and we will keep you posted as soon as we’ve made a determination [of] whether there are reachable objects — we certainly hope so,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute’s Planetary Science Directorate in Boulder, Colorado, said during a news conference in late August.

    A long journey

    New Horizons launched in January 2006 on a $700 million mission to study Pluto and its five known moons. The probe’s flyby should return the first up-close looks at the dwarf planet, which is so distant and dim that it remains cloaked in mystery more than eight decades after its 1930 discovery.

    “Everything that we know about the Pluto system today could probably fit on one piece of paper,” Stern said, adding that New Horizon’s observations should provide “a bonanza for science in so many ways.”

    But the New Horizons team has never been fixated solely on Pluto. Stern and his colleagues are also preparing for a possible extended mission, which would send New Horizons out to explore another object in the Kuiper Belt— the ring of frigid bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit that includes Pluto.

    kb
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt, derived from data from the Minor Planet Center. Objects in the main belt are colored green, whereas scattered objects are colored orange. The four outer planets are blue. Neptune’s few known trojans are yellow, whereas Jupiter’s are pink. The scattered objects between Jupiter’s orbit and the Kuiper belt are known as centaurs. The scale is in astronomical units. The pronounced gap at the bottom is due to difficulties in detection against the background of the plane of the Milky Way

    Finding another Kuiper Belt object (KBO) to explore has proven challenging, however.

    “These are objects that are much smaller than Pluto, and probably much more primitive in terms of their chemistry and their appearance,” Stern said. “These are objects the size of counties, for example, not the size of planets. They’re very faint.”

    Indeed, mission scientists have spent about four years searching for post-Pluto targets, using some of the world’s biggest ground-based telescopes. The hunt turned up some KBOs, but none of them was within New Horizons’ fuel reach, Stern said.

    So the team applied for time on Hubble, which is always hotly contested. In June, the researchers were granted observation time on 200 Hubble orbits of Earth.

    Possibilities for New Horizons

    The Hubble search is complete, and the New Horizons team is now going through the telescope’s data.

    “Hubble has done a spectacularly good job, and has yielded literally hundreds of images of that part of the sky, from which we’ve found some candidates,” Stern said. “We don’t know if any of them, though, are within our fuel reach, and we won’t still for some months, because we have to track them as they move in their orbits.”

    New Horizons’ fuel reach will apparently be a bit greater than the probe’s handlers had originally envisioned. A trajectory-correction burn performed this summer was so accurate that an additional potential burn planned for January won’t be necessary, mission officials said.

    “This is a good omen for our hoped-for Kuiper Belt flyby because each burn we can cancel saves a little fuel and makes the Kuiper Belt mission more feasible,” Stern wrote in a mission update last month.

    New Horizons has been in hibernation since Aug. 29. It will wake up on Dec. 6 to begin preparing for the Pluto flyby, which officially begins in January, team members said.

    See the full article here.

    ScienceSprings relies on technology from

    MAINGEAR computers

    Lenovo
    Lenovo

    Dell
    Dell

     
  • richardmitnick 12:17 pm on October 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From astrobio.net: “Moons Can Help Planets Remain Stable Long Enough for Life to Form” 

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Astrobiology Magazine

    Oct 9, 2014
    Charles Q. Choi

    The Moon is more than just Earth’s partner in space — it may have helped stabilize Earth’s orbit enough for it to become hospitable for the evolution of complex forms of life.

    moon
    The Galileo spacecraft sent back this image of the Moon as it headed into the outer solar system. Credit: NASA

    NASA Galileo
    NASA/Galileo

    A new study suggests that large moons can form and remain stable for long times around distant planets as well, potentially helping alien life evolve.

    Researchers also suggest that if the recently discovered rocky alien planet Kepler-62f has a moon, the moon could last more than 5 billion years, perhaps long enough to help foster the evolution of complex life. The investigators detailed their findings in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

    kf
    Kepler-62f (foreground) and Kepler-62e (right) are habitable zone exoplanets orbiting the star Kepler-62 (center).

    NASA Kepler Telescope
    NASA/Kepler

    In the past two decades or so, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 1,700 planets beyond the Solar System, and they may soon prove the existence of thousands more of such exoplanets. Of special interest are distant planets in habitable zones, the regions around stars just warm enough for worlds to possess liquid water on their surfaces, as there is life virtually wherever liquid water is found on Earth.

    To support complex forms of life, a world needs more than just an orbit within its star’s habitable zone. It probably also needs a climate that remains stable over long time spans as well. One major factor controlling a world’s climate is its obliquity, also known as axial tilt, which has to do with the amount its axis of rotation is tilted in relation to the path it takes around its star.

    Earth’s seasons, for example, depend on the axial tilt, as the amount of light hitting the northern and southern hemispheres varies with the way the northern and southern hemispheres point toward or away from the Sun.

    Earth’s axial tilt was stabilized with the help of the gravitational pull of its large moon, which is roughly one-quarter the diameter of the Earth.

    “If the Earth did not have the Moon, the Earth’s axial tilt would have changed rapidly and the climate of the Earth would have changed often,” said lead study author Takashi Sasaki, a planetary scientist at the University of Idaho.

    In contrast, Mars has relatively small moons, and its axial tilt has changed substantially over long periods of time, fluctuating chaotically on a 100,000-year time scale. These wobbles in Mars’ axial tilt might help explain why vast underground pockets of ice have been discovered far from the Red Planet’s poles. In the distant past, Mars’ axis might have been tilted at a significantly more extreme angle than it is now, and ice caps were able to reach across the planet. Even after Mars’ axial tilt became less extreme, this ice far from the poles survived, protected by subsequent layers of dust.

    sys
    View of a planetary system seen from Kepler-62f. Credit: Danielle Futselaar/SETI Institute

    A planet whose axial tilt fluctuates wildly like Mars may not maintain a favorable climate for a long enough time for complex forms of life to evolve. For example, it took about 3.8 billion years for life on the 4.6-billion-year-old Earth to evolve from single-celled organisms to multicellular life such as plants, animals and fungi.

    “Because the Earth has had a long-term stable climate, life on the Earth has had time to evolve from single cells to complex life forms,” Sasaki said.

    Since the Moon is a key reason why Earth has had a relatively stable climate for a long time, the Moon is one of the key factors in Earth’s evolution of complex life forms, he said.

    Sasaki and his colleague Jason Barnes sought to understand how long moons might last around rocky planets in habitable zones, given varying masses and compositions of moons, planets and stars. They focused on systems where moons could last 5 billion years, assuming that such a duration is long enough for complex life to evolve.

    Their model accounted for how a planet or moon’s gravitational pull increases in relation to increasing mass. In addition, their calculations factored in how gravitational tidal forces are greater the closer two bodies are to one another. The gravitational pull of a planet’s star can also influence the relationship between that world and its moon.

    pho
    Mars’ moon Phobos as seen by the Mars Express spacecraft. Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR, ESA

    ESA Mars Express Orbiter
    ESA/Mars Express

    Three potential scenarios were possible. First, a moon could get closer and closer to its planet until it breaks apart or collides with its host, as Mars’ moon Phobos is predicted to do about 50 million years from now. Next, a moon could get farther and farther away until it escapes the planet. Last, a moon can reach a stable distance from its planet, as is the case for the dwarf planet Pluto’s moon Charon.

    The rate at which a moon gets closer to or farther away from its planet depends on the extent to which the tidal forces they exert on each other dissipates and slows their rates of spin. For instance, as the Moon’s orbit has taken it farther away from Earth over time, the Moon’s rate of spin has slowed to the point that it now always shows just one side to Earth. Eventually, the Earth will also slow its rate of spin enough to always show just one side to the Moon.

    pluto
    An artist’s concept of Pluto as viewed from the surface of one its moons. Pluto is the large disk at the center of the image. Charon is the smaller disk to the right. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

    The degree to which a moon and its planet dissipate the tidal forces they exert on each other relies greatly on the mass, compositions and structures of those bodies. For instance, the way tides slosh water around in the shallow seas of Earth dissipates large amounts of tidal energy. Planets with no oceans or with deep oceans would dissipate less tidal energy than Earth.

    The researchers examined four typical planet compositions: Earth-like planets composed of 67 percent mostly silicon-based rock and 33 percent iron; planets with 50 percent rock and 50 percent ice; planets with 100 percent rock; and planets with 100 percent iron. These planets were one-tenth to ten times Earth’s mass and orbited the habitable zones of stars that ranged from 40 percent to equal the mass of the Sun.

    The scientists found that stars with less than 42 percent of the Sun’s mass may not be good places to look for complex life because moons cannot survive for more than 5 billion years in these systems. This is because the habitable zones are closer to stars that have dimmer and lower masses than in brighter, higher-mass star systems. For instance, in solar systems with stars 40 to 50 percent of the Sun’s mass, the habitable distance is approximately one-quarter of the distance between the Sun and Earth. Since these planet-moon systems are so close to their host stars, their stars gravitational pull perturbs the planet-moon systems too much for the moons to remain around their planets, Sasaki said.

    image
    New Horizons LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) composite image showing the detection of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. When these images were taken on July 1 and July 3, 2013, the New Horizons spacecraft was still about 550 million miles (880 million kilometers) from Pluto. On July 14, 2015, the spacecraft is scheduled to pass just 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface, where LORRI will be able to spot features about the size of a football field. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons

    This finding runs counter to the belief that lower-mass stars are good for habitable planets because they live longer than higher-mass stars, potentially giving them more time for life to evolve. For example, while the lifetime of a planet with a mass twice the Sun’s mass is about 1.2 billion to 1.3 billion years, the lifetime of a star with half the Sun’s mass is about 80 billion years, Sasaki said. However, he noted “our results show that small-mass stars may not be good parent stars for habitable planets.”

    For stars more than 42 percent the Sun’s mass, whether a moon survives depends on factors such as the planet’s composition and how well the planet dissipates tidal energy. A moon has a longer lifetime the higher the density of its host planet.

    The researchers also investigated the prospect for moons in the Kepler-62 system, which at a distance of 1,200 light years from Earth has a star that is a bit cooler and smaller than the Sun, as well as two planets in the habitable zone: Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f. The planets are 1.4 and 1.6 times Earth’s diameter, respectively.

    planets
    The diagram compares the planets of the inner solar system to Kepler-62, a five-planet system about 1,200 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

    The scientists found that Kepler-62e would have to be composed almost entirely of a high-density material, such as iron, for a moon orbiting it to exist for more than 5 billion years. They also discovered that Kepler-62f could have a moon for more than 5 billion years if it had a variety of different compositions, particularly if it had an absence of oceans or only deep oceans, either of which would cause the planet to dissipate less tidal energy.

    In the future, instead of looking at moons around Earth-sized planets in habitable zones, Sasaki said they would like to investigate moons around giant planets in habitable zones.

    “If a giant planet at habitable zone has a big enough moon, there may be life on the moon,” Sasaki said. “Finding the conditions favorable for habitable moons is a direction we might go.”

    See the full article here.

    NASA

    ScienceSprings relies on technology from

    MAINGEAR computers

    Lenovo
    Lenovo

    Dell
    Dell

     
  • richardmitnick 3:00 pm on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , NASA New Horizons   

    From NASA: "NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft Crosses Neptune Orbit En Route to Historic Pluto Encounter " 

    NASA

    NASA

    August 25, 2014

    Dwayne Brown
    Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726
    dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

    Michael Buckley
    Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
    240-228-7536
    michael.buckley@jhuapl.edu

    Preston Dyches
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-5011
    preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

    NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft has traversed the orbit of Neptune. This is its last major crossing en route to becoming the first probe to make a close encounter with distant Pluto on July 14, 2015.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    The sophisticated piano-sized spacecraft, which launched in January 2006, reached Neptune’s orbit — nearly 2.75 billion miles from Earth — in a record eight years and eight months. New Horizons’ milestone matches precisely the 25th anniversary of the historic encounter of NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft with Neptune on Aug. 25, 1989.

    NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft
    NASA/Voyager2

    Newptiune/triton
    Neptune with Triton

    “It’s a cosmic coincidence that connects one of NASA’s iconic past outer solar system explorers, with our next outer solar system explorer,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Exactly 25 years ago at Neptune, Voyager 2 delivered our ‘first’ look at an unexplored planet. Now it will be New Horizons’ turn to reveal the unexplored Pluto and its moons in stunning detail next summer on its way into the vast outer reaches of the solar system.”

    New Horizons now is about 2.48 billion miles from Neptune — nearly 27 times the distance between the Earth and our sun — as it crosses the giant planet’s orbit at 10:04 p.m. EDT Monday. Although the spacecraft will be much farther from the planet than Voyager 2’s closest approach, New Horizons’ telescopic camera was able to obtain several long-distance “approach” shots of Neptune on July 10.

    “NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 explored the entire middle zone of the solar system where the giant planets orbit,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Now we stand on Voyager’s broad shoulders to explore the even more distant and mysterious Pluto system.”

    Several senior members of the New Horizons science team were young members of Voyager’s science team in 1989. Many remember how Voyager 2’s approach images of Neptune and its planet-sized moon Triton fueled anticipation of the discoveries to come. They share a similar, growing excitement as New Horizons begins its approach to Pluto.

    “The feeling 25 years ago was that this was really cool, because we’re going to see Neptune and Triton up-close for the first time,” said Ralph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, who leads the New Horizons energetic-particle investigation and served on the Voyager plasma-analysis team. “The same is happening for New Horizons. Even this summer, when we’re still a year out and our cameras can only spot Pluto and its largest moon as dots, we know we’re in for something incredible ahead.”

    Voyager’s visit to the Neptune system revealed previously unseen features of Neptune itself, such as the Great Dark Spot, a massive storm similar to, but not as long-lived, as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Voyager also, for the first time, captured clear images of the ice giant’s ring system, too faint to be clearly viewed from Earth. “There were surprises at Neptune and there were surprises at Triton,” said Ed Stone, Voyager’s long-standing project scientist from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “I’m sure that will continue at Pluto.”

    gds
    Neptune’s Great dark Spot

    Many researchers feel the 1989 Neptune flyby — Voyager’s final planetary encounter — might have offered a preview of what’s to come next summer. Scientists suggest that Triton, with its icy surface, bright poles, varied terrain and cryovolcanoes, is a Pluto-like object that Neptune pulled into orbit. Scientists recently restored Voyager’s footage of Triton and used it to construct the best global color map of that strange moon yet — further whetting appetites for a Pluto close-up.

    “There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up,” McNutt said. “That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this — we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.”

    Similar to Voyager 1 and 2’s historic observations, New Horizons also is on a path toward potential discoveries in the Kuiper Belt, which is a disc-shaped region of icy objects past the orbit of Neptune, and other unexplored realms of the outer solar system and beyond.

    kuiper
    Known objects in the Kuiper belt, derived from data from the Minor Planet Center. Objects in the main belt are colored green, whereas scattered objects are colored orange. The four outer planets are blue. Neptune’s few known trojans are yellow, whereas Jupiter’s are pink. The scattered objects between Jupiter’s orbit and the Kuiper belt are known as centaurs. The scale is in astronomical units. The pronounced gap at the bottom is due to difficulties in detection against the background of the plane of the Milky Way.

    “No country except the United States has the demonstrated capability to explore so far away,” said Stern. “The U.S. has led the exploration of the planets and space to a degree no other nation has, and continues to do so with New Horizons. We’re incredibly proud that New Horizons represents the nation again as NASA breaks records with its newest, farthest and very capable planetary exploration spacecraft.”

    Voyager 1 and 2 were launched 16 days apart in 1977, and one of the spacecraft visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 1 now is the most distant human-made object, about 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) away from the sun. In 2012, it became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. Voyager 2, the longest continuously operated spacecraft, is about 9 billion miles (15 billion kilometers) away from our sun.

    New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program. APL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. APL also built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

    The Voyager spacecraft were built and continue to be operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Voyager missions are part of NASA’s Heliophysics System Observatory, sponsored by the Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate.

    See the full article here.

    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 Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

    ScienceSprings relies on technology from

    MAINGEAR computers

    Lenovo
    Lenovo

    Dell
    Dell

     
c
Compose new post
j
Next post/Next comment
k
Previous post/Previous comment
r
Reply
e
Edit
o
Show/Hide comments
t
Go to top
l
Go to login
h
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
Cancel
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 444 other followers

%d bloggers like this: