Category Archives: Pluto and beyond

New Horizons spots small moons circling Pluto

The New Horizons probe is closing in on the Pluto system, which it will fly by in July. the latest pictures from the spacecraft are processed to enhanced the details Pluto’s moons :

85 Years after Pluto’s Discovery,
New Horizons Spots Small Moons Orbiting Pluto

Exactly 85 years after Clyde Tombaugh’s historic discovery of Pluto, the NASA spacecraft set to encounter the icy planet this summer is providing its first views of the small moons orbiting Pluto.

The moons Nix and Hydra are visible in a series of images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft from Jan. 27-Feb. 8, at distances ranging from about 125 million to 115 million miles (201 million to 186 million kilometers). The long-exposure images offer New Horizons’ best view yet of these two small moons circling Pluto, which Tombaugh discovered at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Feb. 18, 1930.


“Professor Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto was far ahead its time, heralding the discovery of the Kuiper Belt and a new class of planet,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “The New Horizons team salutes his historic accomplishment.”

Assembled into a seven-frame movie, the new images provide the spacecraft’s first extended look at Hydra (identified by a yellow diamond) and its first-ever view of Nix (orange diamond). The right-hand image set has been specially processed to make the small moons easier to see.

“It’s thrilling to watch the details of the Pluto system emerge as we close the distance to the spacecraft’s July 14 encounter,” says New Horizons science team member John Spencer, also from Southwest Research Institute. “This first good view of Nix and Hydra marks another major milestone, and a perfect way to celebrate the anniversary of Pluto’s discovery.”

These are the first of a series of long-exposure images that will continue through early March, with the purpose of refining the team’s knowledge of the moons’ orbits. Each frame is a combination of five 10-second images, taken with New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) using a special mode that combines pixels to increase sensitivity at the expense of resolution. At left, Nix and Hydra are just visible against the glare of Pluto and its large moon Charon, and the dense field of background stars. The bright and dark streak extending to the right of Pluto is an artifact of the camera electronics, resulting from the overexposure of Pluto and Charon. As can be seen in the movie, the spacecraft and camera were rotated in some of the images to change the direction of this streak, in order to prevent it from obscuring the two moons.

The right-hand images have been processed to remove most of Pluto and Charon’s glare, and most of the background stars. The processing leaves blotchy and streaky artifacts in the images, as well as a few other residual bright spots that are not real features, but makes Nix and Hydra much easier to see. Celestial north is inclined 28 degrees clockwise from the “up” direction in these images.

Nix and Hydra were discovered by New Horizons team members in Hubble Space Telescope images taken in 2005. Hydra, Pluto’s outermost known moon, orbits Pluto every 38 days at a distance of approximately 40,200 miles (64,700 kilometers), while Nix orbits every 25 days at a distance of 30,260 miles (48,700 kilometers). Each moon is probably between 25-95 miles (approximately 40- 150 kilometers) in diameter, but scientists won’t know their sizes more precisely until New Horizons obtains close-up pictures of both of them in July. Pluto’s two other small moons, Styx and Kerberos, are still smaller and too faint to be seen by New Horizons at its current range to Pluto; they will become visible in the months to come.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, 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, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.


Space science: New Horizon Pluto mission team does Q&A + Mars lander to test system to produce oxygen on Mars

Alan Stern and other members of the New Horizon mission to Pluto answer questions about the mission in this edited version of  an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit: Alan Stern · AMA Highlights.


A group of retired spacecraft engineers and scientists are helping to design and build an experimental system to go on the Mars 2020 lander that will extract oxygen from the CO2 in the atmosphere : Elder statesmen of science unite for Mars mission – The Boston Globe

At an age when most are retired or thinking hard about it, they’ve put their minds together to help solve one of the great puzzles of human interplanetary travel. And NASA has awarded them $30 million to press on.

To be clear, these elder statesmen of science don’t plan to pay a visit themselves. They are building an oxygen-generating machine to ride aboard the unmanned Mars 2020 rover, an early version of a technology that could enable the next generation to breathe and burn fuel on Mars — and power their way home.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the abbreviated acronym for their instrument — the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment — is MOXIE.


MOXIE would be the first real attempt by NASA to test a system necessary for “in situ” resource utilization, which is key to settlement of Mars and other sites in the solar system. Local resources must be used for long term residence in space rather than relying on supplies from earth.

New Horizons returns new images of Pluto

The New Horizons spacecraft moves ever closer to Pluto and to its fly-by this summer. Here are new pictures taken by the satellite of the Pluto system:

Happy Birthday Clyde Tombaugh:
New Horizons Returns New Images of Pluto

Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh could only dream of a spacecraft flying past the small planet he spotted on the edges of the solar system in 1930. Yet the newest views of Pluto from NASA’s approaching New Horizons probe – released today, on the late American astronomer’s birthday – hint at just how close that dream is to coming true.

Tombaugh, who died in 1997, was born on Feb. 4, 1906.

“This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honor of his discovery and life achievements — which truly became a harbinger of 21st century planetary astronomy,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “These images of Pluto, clearly brighter and closer than those New Horizons took last July from twice as far away, represent our first steps at turning the pinpoint of light Clyde saw in the telescopes at Lowell Observatory 85 years ago, into a planet before the eyes of the world this summer.”


The “eagle eyes” of New Horizons, LORRI is a panchromatic high-magnification imager, consisting of a telescope with an 8.2-inch (20.8-centimeter) aperture that focuses visible light onto a charge-coupled device. It’s essentially a digital camera with a large telephoto telescope – only fortified to operate in the cold, hostile environs near Pluto. Read more.

The new images, taken with New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, were the first acquired during the spacecraft’s 2015 approach to the Pluto system, which culminates with a close flyby of Pluto and its system of moons on July 14. New Horizons was more than 126 million miles (203 million kilometers) away from Pluto when it began taking the photos, which show Pluto and largest moon, Charon.

“Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light,” said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and the dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets. The new LORRI images also demonstrate that the camera’s performance is unchanged since it was launched more than nine years ago.”


Six Months of Separation: A comparison of images of Pluto and its large moon Charon, taken in July 2014 and January 2015. Between takes, New Horizons had more than halved its distance to Pluto, from about 264 million miles (425 million kilometers) to 126 million miles (203 million kilometers).

Pluto and Charon are four times brighter than and twice as large as in July, and Charon clearly appears more separated from Pluto. These two images are displayed using the same intensity scales. In LORRI’s current view, Pluto and Charon subtend just 2 pixels and 1 pixel, respectively, compared to 1 pixel and 0.5 pixels last July. The images were magnified four times to make Pluto and Charon more visible.

Both images were rotated to show the celestial north pole at the top.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Over the next few months, LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto against star fields to refine the team’s estimates of New Horizons’ distance to Pluto. As in these first images, the Pluto system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until late spring, but mission navigators will use these images to design course-correcting engine maneuvers that precisely aim New Horizons on approach. The first such maneuver based on these “optical navigation” images, or “OpNavs,” is scheduled for March 10.

Closing in on Pluto at about 31,000 miles per hour, New Horizons has already covered more than 3 billion miles since launch on Jan. 19, 2006. Its epic journey has taken it past each planet’s orbit from Mars to Neptune in record time, and it is now in the first stage of an encounter with Pluto that includes long-distance imaging as well as dust, energetic particle and solar wind measurements to characterize the space environment near Pluto.

“My dad would be thrilled with New Horizons,” said Annette Tombaugh, Clyde Tombaugh’s daughter, of Las Cruces, New Mexico. “To actually see the planet that he had discovered and find out more about it, to get to see the moons of Pluto … he would have been astounded. I’m sure it would have meant so much to him if he were still alive today.”

APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, 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, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.


A Long Distance Look from LORRI:Pluto and Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five known moons, seen Jan. 25 and 27, 2015, through the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons was about 126 million miles (203 million kilometers) from Pluto when the frames to make the first image were taken; about 1.5 million miles (2.5 million kilometers) closer for the second set. These images are the first acquired during the spacecraft’s 2015 approach to the Pluto system, which culminates with a close flyby of Pluto and its moons on July 14.

Pluto and Charon subtended 2 pixels and 1 pixel, respectively, in LORRI’s field of view. The image was magnified four times to make Pluto and Charon more visible, though during the next several months, the apparent sizes of Pluto and Charon, as well as the separation between them, will continue to expand in the LORRI images.

The image exposure time was only a tenth of a second, which is too short to detect Pluto’s smaller moons. LORRI will also be taking images with longer exposure times (10 seconds) that should reveal both Nix and Hydra.

See the individual images from Jan. 25 and Jan. 27.

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.


Ashes of Clyde Tombaugh to fly close to Pluto

A part of Clyde Tombaugh will fly past Pluto, which he discovered in 1930: NASA probe to arrive at Pluto carrying ashes of Clyde Tombaugh – Telegraph.

Tombaugh died on January 17 1997, nine years and two days before New Horizon’s launch, but one of his final requests was for his ashes to be sent into space.

A small container carrying his remains is affixed to the insider of the upper deck of the probe bearing the inscription: “Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’”

A sample of the remains of famous space scientist Eugene Shoemaker also went to the Moon via the Lunar Prospector probe : ‘Burying’ a man on the moon – NBC News

The company Celestis, Inc. has arranged for space burials for quite a few people, including a number of celebrities.

“It’s Pluto eve!” – Update on the New Horizons mission

Alan Stern, principle investigator for the New Horizons fly-by of Pluto mission, gives this update as they wait for next July’s encounter with the distant planet:

It’s Pluto Eve!

December 31, 2014: As 2014 ends and 2015 begins, I’m reminded of something senior planetary scientist and New Horizons science team member Rick Binzel said a while back: “It’s Pluto Eve!”

New Horizons has been awake from hibernation since mid-day on Dec. 6, having completed its almost nine-year-long cruise phase from Earth to “Pluto space.” We’re currently in the very earliest stages of Pluto approach.

Since waking New Horizons, we’ve been checking out spacecraft systems and some of the instruments, calibrating gyroscopes, collecting trajectory tracking information, and undertaking many other spacecraft preparations before the Pluto encounter starts on Jan. 15. At the same time, our science, engineering and operations teams have been planning and testing spacecraft command loads (detailed flight plans) for the first parts of encounter operations in early 2015. Needless to say, it’s been a busy time.

When the encounter begins we’ll still be very far from Pluto, about 135 million miles (220 million kilometers). We won’t get close enough to be at our “BTH” — Better than Hubble —imaging point until mid-May, but there is still a lot to do before then.

Throughout January to early-May, we’ll be taking essentially continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the Pluto system orbits. We’ll do that daily using our charged particle sensors (called PEPSSI and SWAP) to measure both solar wind and high-energy particles, and we’ll use the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter to measure dust-particle concentrations in the inner reaches of the Kuiper Belt.

We’ll also do a great deal of radio tracking of New Horizons using NASA’s Deep Space Network to refine our knowledge of the approach trajectory, and we’ll use our Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to take hundreds of pictures of Pluto against star fields to better refine the spacecraft’s distance to Pluto. Our navigation teams will use that information to compute burn solutions for midcourse maneuvers we may want to make using New Horizons’ rocket engines in mid-March and mid-May. We should know whether the March burn will be needed by early February and we’ll keep you posted.

Some other data we’ll be planning to take before May include:

  • January, February and April: A series of better and better approach movies of Pluto and its satellites orbiting around it.
  • April: Distant color imaging of Pluto and its large moon Charon, and brightness-variation measurements of smaller moons Nix and Hydra as they rotate on their axes.

The gap in imaging observations in March has been timed to give our ground teams a bit of a break before the sprint to Pluto encounter from April to July.

In all the images we’ll take through April, Pluto will just be a few pixels across at most, so the imagery will look like the Hubble images you may be familiar with. Nonetheless, these datasets will provide important science information because they will be taken from angles that can’t be observed from Earth, and taken more frequently than observations we typically make from the ground. We plan to release results from these approach observations one to several times each month, at a pace that quickens with time.

Hubble-view-of-Pluto[1]Pluto as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Back on Earth, from January to April, we’ll inspect all these datasets and determine what they can teach us about Pluto and its environment from afar. We’ll also be planning encounter command loads for both this period and for May and June, during which the pace of Pluto observations will increase dramatically (as will our resolution of Pluto). And our ground team will also further refine our trajectory information and range-to-Pluto measurements, conduct a final set of instrument checkouts, complete final training simulations for encounter, and build and test some of the software we’ll use to analyze the detailed Pluto-system data that begins flowing home in the later stage of approach in early summer.

NewHorizons_Durda-lgNew Horizons: NASA’s First mission to the Pluto system (based
on an artist’s conception of Pluto by planetary scientist Dan Durda).

In early 2015 we also plan to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto — made in 1930. More on that soon, too.

We’ve been waiting for 2015 for so long, so I hope you have a safe and joyous New Year’s celebration. And until I write again, I hope you’ll keep exploring—just as we do!

– Alan Stern