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Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far

New ideas about Pluto, Charon, and all the little moons have been flowing back from the New Horizons spacecraft fast and furious. If you’re curious but haven’t kept up, here’s everything we’ve learned so far.

The New Horizons spacecraft is on a decade-long mission exploring deep space. It just completed the first-ever flyby of Pluto, a dwarf planet and the first Kuiper Belt Object ever explored. The spacecraft can either make observations or communicate with Earth, so for now it’s focusing on getting more data and sending back just the barest, highest-priority data in its failsafe downlinks. Even that tiny trickle of data has been enough to completely overthrow our theories of what we expected to find at the icy little world and its family of moons.

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Pluto and Charon in natural colour, composited to scale, from 768,000 kilometers. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto: a Surprisingly Active World

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Pluto in natural colour, and in enhanced colour to emphasize compositional differencesImage credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Once we were up-close and personal, we could finally make an accurate measurement of the dwarf planet’s size:2,370 kilometers (1,473 miles) in diameter, give or take 20 kilometers. This makes it the largest dwarf planet, and the undisputed King of the Kuiper Belt.

It’s challenging to describe the terrain of Pluto because it’s a complex, diverse world with distinct regions. It has a polar cap of methane and nitrogen ice, with more methane unevenly distributed across the surface of the dwarf planet. The darkest regions have yet to be explored in detail, but are already bearing the names of dark gods.

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Parts of Norgay Montes and Sputnik Planum seen from 77,000 kilometers away. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Instead, the New Horizons spacecraft specifically targeted the bright heart of Pluto (named Tombaugh Regio for discoverer Clyde Tombaugh) for its close-up photographs. The most shocking part of Pluto we’ve found far fewer craters than we’d expected. In all the close-up images released so far of the Tombaugh Regio, we haven’t seen a single crater. Instead of an ancient, inert rock, we’ve found a icy world with active processes creating fresh surfaces within the past 100 million years. (That’s younger than the Appalachian Mountains!)

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
The Tombaugh Regio is home to oddly young terrain, and a lump of carbon monoxide. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

We don’t yet know what processes are driving geological activity on Pluto. Current theories are that Pluto has an unexpected heat source, stored heat, or is more efficient at using heat. While we haven’t figured out the connection yet, this young region is also the only place we’ve found with a disproportional concentration of carbon monoxide.

In terms of specific terrain, we’ve found a mountain range, Norgay Montes, equivalent to the Rockies here on Earth, and vast weirdly-textured plains, the Sputnik Planum. The rugged mountains are made of hard ice, possibly water ice which approximates the strength at rock at Pluto’s frigid temperatures. The textures on the plains are most likely caused by either thermal contraction during cooling, or upwelling from subsurface convection.

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Schematic of high-energy particles from the solar wind ionizing nitrogen gas escaping from Pluto. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The atmosphere of Pluto is also producing surprises. The dwarf planet has an ionized tail like a comet, produced by nitrogen from its atmosphere leaking into the solar wind. The rate of escape is staggering: it’s possible 450,000 kilograms (500 tons) of gas are escaping the little world into space every hour. We need to download more data before we can pin that number down more firmly, but whatever it turns out to be, it’s producing a massive bubble of ionized particles around Pluto.

Charon: a World Disguised as a Moon

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Charon in natural colour, and in enhanced colour to emphasize compositional differences. Image credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Charon is Pluto’s largest moon. At nearly half Pluto’s diameter and 10% of its mass, the moon is the largest in proportion to its world in our solar system. This means that instead of inducing a small wiggle in Pluto’s orbit, both moon and dwarf planet orbit a spot in space marking the center of mass between them.

We got our first surprise when Charon was still a fuzzy blur in the distance: the massive moon had a smeared dark polar cap. Now named Mordor, the cap is still provoking more questions than answers. We know it’s big and red; that’s about it. We’ll know more later when we start getting spectra back to tell us about chemical composition on the surface of the moon.

When the surface of Charon first came into view, I described it as being probably fairly dull. I was totally wrong. Although more cratered than Pluto, Charon also has fewer craters than we anticipated. This leads to questions about if some process may have been resurfacing the moon in the not-too-distant past.

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Charon seen from 79,000 kilometers away on July 14, 2015 provides a close-up look at its landforms. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The landforms of Charon are also provoking riddles. Leading up to the flyby, we spotted epic cliffs running 1,000 kilometers (600 miles), and a crack into the world that puts the Grand Canyon to shame by digging 7 to 9 kilometers (4 to 6 miles) into the moon. In the first close-up look, we spotted a scattering of craters and cracks of yet-to-be-determined origin that are nicely familiar. We also found a new mystery: what looks like a sunken mountain, a sharp peak surrounded by a wide moat dimpling the surface.

We haven’t yet received the data that will let us determine if Charon steals traces of Pluto’s escaping atmosphere, but it’s coming.

Nix and Hydra: from Pixels to Moons

Nix and Hydra are the larger of Pluto’s four other known moons. Each got their first close-ups this week, revealing them as lumpy, asymmetrical rocks instead of the bare few-pixel specks we’d seen before. Nix is 40 kilometers (25 miles) in diameter, and elongated to a yet-to-be-determined extent in the other dimension. Hydra is decidedly lopsided and lumpy, about 48 kilometers by 33 kilometers (27 miles by 20 miles).

While they don’t necessarily look impressive in their current pixellated glory, once we get the lossless downloads without compression artifacts researchers will manage to pry out all sorts of secrets from these tiny moons.

The probe also captured photographs of the diminutive Styx and Kerbeos, but they won’t be downlinked for a while. The specks of moons will only be about twenty pixels, but that’s still an impressive improvement over what we have now.

New Horizons Spacecraft and Mission Timeline

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Mission Operations Center the day of the Pluto Flyby on July 14, 2015. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The New Horizons spacecraft launched on January 19, 2006 in the highest-velocity escape from this planet ever attempted. It picked up a boost on its way past Jupiter, simultaneously shedding the last of its protective instrument caps. After a nearly decade-long journey, the spacecraft reached its closest approach to the Pluto-Charon system on July 14, 2015. After waking up from hibernation last December, it entered approach mode in January. The spacecraft collected data through the approach, through the flyby, and now during its departure from the system. It’s going to keep collecting data off and on through the departure phase until early 2016.

The spacecraft has been performing excellently. It was right on target during the approach, hitting a trajectory well-within both the targeted and ideal ranges. It had one heart-stopping hiccup when an error on July 4th sent it into safe mode. The team heroically worked around a 9-hour ping time to get the problem resolved and the probe was back online after missing only three of its scheduled (non-essential) photographs.

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
You can track which space explorers the Deep Space Network is chatting with in real time on the NASA Eyes website.. Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

After the flyby, the spacecraft is still in fantastic shape. New Horizons instruments are powered by a small radioisotope thermoelectric generator that will keep it running into the 2030s by converting the heat of decaying plutonium into electricity. While the spacecraft is going far too fast to swing into orbit around the Pluto-Charon system, its thrusters have enough propellent remaining to redirect it to a flyby of a second Kuiper Belt Object. Even then, the science isn’t done: New Horizons can keep exploring deep space as it exits the solar system like the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes are doing. This extra science doesn’t depend on the spacecraft: it’s all going to come down to if the extended mission funding is approved to keep the Deep Space Network listening to New Horizonsafter the data downloads (and primary mission) complete in 2016.

The mission isn’t over yet. The data will be downloading through the fall of 2016, sending full lossless datasets home at a painful 2 to 4 kb per second. After the data is home, with a bit of luck, the New Horizons spacecraft will hold two exploration records: One for making the first-ever flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object, and then again for making the first flyby of an entirely different, never explored Kuiper Belt Object. In an adorable bit of bonus history for space exploration, the first data back after the Pluto flyby arrived exactly 8 minutes, 20 seconds shy of the 50th anniversary of Marinier 4 sending home the first photograph of another world.

Your Guide to Pluto: Everything We've Learned From New Horizons So Far
Simulated view of what it would look like to hitch a ride on New Horizons during the historic Pluto flyby. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

What Happens Next?

New Horizons is in departure phase, balancing collecting more observations with downlinking the most critical mission data. The data I’m looking forward to are high resolution stereopairs of Pluto’s terrain (allowing us to see relief in three dimensions), Nix in colour, a higher resolution look at Hydra, more spectra on chemical composition, and temperature measurements. We’re also still collecting data on the space around Pluto, checking out dust distribution, checking for traces of escaped atmosphere, and watching how high energy particles and plasmas interact with the miniature system. Beyond that, I’m sure we’ll be getting all sorts of surprises we haven’t even thought of yet. We’ll be getting data from New Horizons for 16 months , but the last of NASA’s prescheduled press conferences is on Monday so the deluge of new ideas will take a brief hiatus soon.

As for the spacecraft: New Horizons can make a second Kuiper Belt flyby and explore deep space, but only if the extended mission is approved for after 2016.

Top image: Norgay Montes, methane absorption spectra, and Pluto in natural colour. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Two bright worlds meet up in sunset skies this week.

Illustration of Venus and Jupiter close together
This imaginary artwork shows the close-up beauty of both Jupiter and Venus, two bright naked-eye planets that will be visible close together in the skies this week.  

By Andrew Fazekas, National Geographic  

If you spot clear skies any evening this week, don’t miss your chance to witness a stunning close encounter of the two brightest star-like objects in the sky.

Venus and Jupiter—both dazzling star-like objects—will appear to huddle close together in the sunset skies this week. This will be the planets' nearest approach in over a decade.

Both worlds have been slowly converging over the past several weeks, and on Tuesday, June 30, and Wednesday, July 1, they will reach their tightest grouping, separated by less than half a degree. That’s less than the width of the disk of the full moon. So close that onlookers will be able to cover both planets with just their pinky held at arm’s length.

Astronomers call these celestial meetups conjunctions. And this is the second in a series of three between Venus and Jupiter in over a year. The cosmic duo were a bit tighter on August 18, 2014, and will be a tad farther apart in their next encounter at dawn on October 26.

Even though conjunctions aren't that rare, this series is the best between these planets in about 15 years. If you miss the remaining conjunctions, you'll get another chance next year on August 27.

Illustration of what Venus and Jupiter will look like in the sky
This skychart shows the view of the Venus-Jupiter conjunction on July 1, 2015  and what the pretty pair will look like through backyard telescopes.

While limited in their scientific interest, historically Venus and Jupiter conjunctions may be a possible answer to the Star of Bethlehem legend. In the years 2 and 3 B.C. there was a similar series of three stunningly close pairings between the planets that would have caught the eye of ancient astronomers.

Today, the best bet to catch sight of the pretty pairing is to look westward and high the sky beginning a half hour after local sunset. As darkness falls, beacon-like Venus will make its appearance first. Both planets shine so brilliantly, however that observers should have no problem spotting them at dusk. Some novice skywatchers may even mistake them for oncoming lights of airplanes.

Venus will appear about 6 times brighter than Jupiter even though it's only a tenth the size. That’s because Venus is eternally enshrouded with highly reflective white clouds and is much closer to Earth. It's about 56 million miles (90 million kilometers) away while Jupiter is much more distant—some 550 million miles (890 million kilometers).  So their apparent proximity to each other is just an optical illusion.

With even the smallest of backyard telescopes, you will be able to spot Venus’s disk, which resembles a miniature version of a quarter moon. With Jupiter, high magnification will showcase its dark cloud belts and four of its largest moons, sitting beside the planet like a row of ducks.

After July 1st, both planets will appear to quickly separate and sink closer to the horizon. They'll be lost in the glare of the sunset by the end of the month. Both will reappear in late August as bright morning stars visible before dawn.

But before that, Venus and Jupiter will offer one last opportunity for an amazing photo at dusk. As a grand finale, the planets will be joined by the razor-thin crescent moon on July 18th. The tight celestial grouping will span no more than 4 degrees—less than the width of the three middle fingers held at arm's length.

Here’s a perfect chance to catch the  three brightest nighttime celestial objects huddled together, all in the same field of view of your binoculars.

Clear Skies!

Illustration of Venus and Jupiter in orbit
This simulated orbital view of the solar system shows the relative positions of Venus and Jupiter and why both planets appear close together for observers located on Earth.
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We Are A space inspired Group we focus on Scientific expansion, Discovery and of course Space related items of interest. The Space Race is especially loved, we focus on our history as man in space.

The History of Man in Flight is also very Appreciated Aviation and Space are the focuses of interest.

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:bulletgreen: Only good quality works (Please think about resolution, scan quality,
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:bulletgreen: NO Pornographic Content (we’re trying to keep the gallery clean and open for all members of varying tastes and ages)

:bulletgreen: NO Extreme Violence and/or Horror

:bulletgreen: NO stolen works of other artists without their explicit and direct permission, stolen art will be removed and you will get a warning, if the problem continues you will be kicked by one of the admins.

:bulletgreen: Public domain works are excepted. As they are historical in nature and do
not require permission of the owner to use or redistribute.
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Haubakk Featured By Owner 3 days ago
Thanks for the request :)
GeneralTate Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
You are most certainly welcome ! 
Stratocracy Featured By Owner Jul 17, 2015
Why is there so much stuff being submitted that has nothing to do with space or NASA, such as WWII aircraft? It's really annoying. You need to sort it out. 
Coffeebean2 Featured By Owner Jul 17, 2015  Hobbyist Photographer
NASA: 1915 to 2015. 

NASA has been involved in a lot of pre-1950 stuff.
Stratocracy Featured By Owner Jul 10, 2015
Thanks and for adding my art! 
GeneralTate Featured By Owner Jul 10, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
You are most welcome 
Sebascelisc Featured By Owner Jul 5, 2015
Thanks for the request :D. I wasn't expecting that ^^;
Rikkubeauty Featured By Owner May 25, 2015
Thanks for the invite ! =)
GeneralTate Featured By Owner May 25, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
No problem, be sure to submit your aviation photos. It's hard to keep up with your barrage of awesome photos. 
Rikkubeauty Featured By Owner May 25, 2015
Ha ha thanks, I'm done with the pics of this airshow, but I'll keep posting if I ever go to another one this year.
GeneralTate Featured By Owner May 25, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Okay :) but the ones that aren't in the group already be sure to submit those. I look forward to seeing more :)  
(1 Reply)
paradigm-shifting Featured By Owner May 15, 2015  Professional General Artist
Welcome to Co-Founders, foreverartist5454 :) :heart:
foreverartist5454 Featured By Owner May 16, 2015  Student Digital Artist
Yay :) haha
paradigm-shifting Featured By Owner May 16, 2015  Professional General Artist
EyeballEarth Featured By Owner May 8, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Really cool and well managed group, just throwing that out there.
paradigm-shifting Featured By Owner May 15, 2015  Professional General Artist
We have a nice team of Admins and lots of people who post lots of interesting stuff. :) This is really the best group I've seen for space and similarly themed content here on dA. A nice mixture of things.
EyeballEarth Featured By Owner May 16, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Nod Yeah it's nice to see someone actually caring about his group and putting a bit of work in it, there's o many abandoned groups around.
paradigm-shifting Featured By Owner May 16, 2015  Professional General Artist
GeneralTate Featured By Owner May 8, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
paradigm-shifting Featured By Owner May 15, 2015  Professional General Artist
... but what does God need with a Star Ship? :)
DavidGrieninger Featured By Owner May 1, 2015  Hobbyist Photographer
Thank you for the request :D
paradigm-shifting Featured By Owner May 16, 2015  Professional General Artist
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