[meteorite-list] Science Papers Reveal New Aspects of Pluto and its Moons
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Tue, 22 Mar 2016 15:46:06 -0700 (PDT)
Science Papers Reveal New Aspects of Pluto and its Moons
Last Updated: March 17, 2016
Editor: Tricia Talbert
This image of haze layers above Pluto's limb was taken by the Ralph/Multispectral
Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. About
20 haze layers are seen; the layers have been found to typically extend
horizontally over hundreds of kilometers, but are not strictly parallel
to the surface. For example, scientists note a haze layer about 3 miles
(5 kilometers) above the surface (lower left area of the image), which
descends to the surface at the right.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Gladstone et al./Science (2016)
A year ago, Pluto was just a bright speck in the cameras of NASA's approaching
New Horizons spacecraft, not much different than its appearances in telescopes
since Clyde Tombaugh discovered the then-ninth planet in 1930.
But this week, in the journal Science, New Horizons scientists have authored
the first comprehensive set of papers describing results from last summer's
Pluto system flyby. "These five detailed papers completely transform
our view of Pluto - revealing the former 'astronomer's planet'
to be a real world with diverse and active geology, exotic surface chemistry,
a complex atmosphere, puzzling interaction with the sun and an intriguing
system of small moons," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator
from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.
Above are New Horizons' views of the informally named Sputnik Planum
on Pluto (top) and the informally named Vulcan Planum on Charon (bottom).
The Sputnik Planum strip measures 228 miles (367 kilometers) long, and
the Vulcan Planum strip measures 194 miles (312 kilometers) long. Illumination
is from the left. The bright, nitrogen-ice plains are defined by a network
of crisscrossing troughs. This observation was obtained by the Ralph/Multispectral
Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) at a resolution of 1,050 feet (320 meters)
per pixel. The Vulcan Planum view in the bottom panel includes the "moated
mountain" Clarke Mons just above the center of the image. The water
ice-rich plains display a range of surface textures, from smooth and grooved
at left, to pitted and hummocky at right. This observation was obtained
by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a resolution of 525
feet (160 meters) per pixel.
After a 9.5-year, 3-billion-mile journey - launching faster and traveling
farther than any spacecraft to reach its primary target - New Horizons
zipped by Pluto on July 14, 2015. New Horizons' seven science instruments
collected about 50 gigabits of data on the spacecraft's digital recorders,
most of it coming over nine busy days surrounding the encounter.
The first close-up pictures revealed a large heart-shaped feature carved
into Pluto's surface, telling scientists that this "new" type of
planetary world - the largest, brightest and first-explored in the mysterious,
distant "third zone" of our solar system known as the Kuiper Belt
- would be even more interesting and puzzling than models predicted.
The newly published Science papers bear that out; click here for a list
of top results.
"Observing Pluto and Charon up close has caused us to completely reassess
thinking on what sort of geological activity can be sustained on isolated
planetary bodies in this distant region of the solar system, worlds that
formerly had been thought to be relics little changed since the Kuiper
Belt's formation," said Jeff Moore, lead author of the geology paper
from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.
Scientists studying Pluto's composition say the diversity of its landscape
stems from eons of interaction between highly volatile and mobile methane,
nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices with inert and sturdy water ice. "We
see variations in the distribution of Pluto's volatile ices that point
to fascinating cycles of evaporation and condensation," said Will Grundy
of the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona, lead author of the composition
paper. "These cycles are a lot richer than those on Earth, where there's
really only one material that condenses and evaporates - water. On Pluto,
there are at least three materials, and while they interact in ways we
don't yet fully understand, we definitely see their effects all across
This enhanced color view of Pluto's surface diversity was created by merging
Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color imagery (650 meters
or 2,132 feet per pixel) with Long Range Reconnaissance Imager panchromatic
imagery (230 meters or 755 feet per pixel). At lower right, ancient, heavily
cratered terrain is coated with dark, reddish tholins. At upper right,
volatile ices filling the informally named Sputnik Planum have modified
the surface, creating a chaos-like array of blocky mountains. Volatile
ice also occupies a few nearby deep craters, and in some areas the volatile
ice is pocked with arrays of small sublimation pits. At left, and across
the bottom of the scene, gray-white methane ice deposits modify tectonic
ridges, the rims of craters, and north-facing slopes. The scene in this
image is 260 miles (420 kilometers) wide and 140 miles (225 kilometers)
from top to bottom; north is to the upper left.
Above the surface, scientists discovered Pluto's atmosphere contains
layered hazes, and is both cooler and more compact than expected. This
affects how Pluto's upper atmosphere is lost to space, and how it interacts
with the stream of charged particles from the sun known as the solar wind.
"We've discovered that pre-New Horizons estimates wildly overestimated
the loss of material from Pluto's atmosphere," said Fran Bagenal,
from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead author of the particles
and plasma paper. "The thought was that Pluto's atmosphere was escaping
like a comet, but it is actually escaping at a rate much more like Earth's
SwRI's Randy Gladstone of San Antonio is the lead author of the Science
paper on atmospheric findings. He added, "We've also discovered that
methane, rather than nitrogen, is Pluto's primary escaping gas. This
is pretty surprising, since near Pluto's surface the atmosphere is more
than 99 percent nitrogen."
Scientists also are analyzing the first close-up images of Pluto's small
moons - Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. Discovered between 2005 and 2012,
the four moons range in diameter from about 25 miles (40 kilometers) for
Nix and Hydra to about six miles (10 kilometers) for Styx and Kerberos.
Mission scientists further observed that the small satellites have highly
anomalous rotation rates and uniformly unusual pole orientations, as well
as icy surfaces with brightness and colors distinctly different from those
of Pluto and Charon.
They've found evidence that some of the moons resulted from mergers
of even smaller bodies, and that their surface ages date back at least
4 billion years. "These latter two results reinforce the hypothesis
that the small moons formed in the aftermath of a collision that produced
the Pluto-Charon binary system," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project
scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
in Laurel, Maryland, and lead author of the Science paper on Pluto's
About half of New Horizons' flyby data has now been transmitted home
- from distances where radio signals at light speed need nearly five
hours to reach Earth - with all of it expected back by the end of 2016.
"This is why we explore," said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist
at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The many discoveries from New Horizons
represent the best of humankind and inspire us to continue the journey
of exploration to the solar system and beyond."
Received on Tue 22 Mar 2016 06:46:06 PM PDT