New Horizons Spacecraft

NASA’s New Horizons Team Finds Haze, Flowing Ice on Pluto

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Pluto sends a breathtaking farewell to New Horizons. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image, delivered to Earth on July 23, is displayed with north at the top of the frame. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Flowing ice and a surprising extended haze are among the newest discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons mission, which reveal distant Pluto to be an icy world of wonders.“We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now — 10 days after closest approach — we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.”

Just seven hours after closest approach, New Horizons aimed its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) back at Pluto, capturing sunlight streaming through the atmosphere and revealing hazes as high as 80 miles (130 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. A preliminary analysis of the image shows two distinct layers of haze — one about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface and the other at an altitude of about 30 miles (50 kilometers).

“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries — it brings incredible beauty.”

Studying Pluto’s atmosphere provides clues as to what’s happening below.

“The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue,” said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Models suggest the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks up methane gas particles — a simple hydrocarbon in Pluto’s atmosphere. The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which also were discovered in Pluto’s atmosphere by New Horizons. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense into ice particles that create the hazes. Ultraviolent sunlight chemically converts hazes into tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto’s surface.

Scientists previously had calculated temperatures would be too warm for hazes to form at altitudes higher than 20 miles (30 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface.

“We’re going to need some new ideas to figure out what’s going on,” said Summers.

The New Horizons mission also found in LORRI images evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.   

The new images show fascinating details within the Texas-sized plain, informally named Sputnik Planum, which lies within the western half of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio. There, a sheet of ice clearly appears to have flowed — and may still be flowing — in a manner similar to glaciers on Earth.

“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” said mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. “I’m really smiling.”

Additionally, new compositional data from New Horizons’ Ralph instrument indicate the center of Sputnik Planum is rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices.

“At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis. “In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.”

View a simulated flyover using New Horizons’ close-approach images of Sputnik Planum and Pluto’s newly-discovered mountain range, informally named Hillary Montes, in the video: http://go.nasa.gov/1MMEdTb

The New Horizons mission will continue to send data stored in its onboard recorders back to Earth through late 2016. The spacecraft currently is 7.6 million miles (12.2 million kilometers) beyond Pluto, healthy and flying deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. SwRI, based in San Antonio, 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.
For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and images, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons

From Mountains to Moons: Multiple Discoveries from NASA’s New Horizons Pluto Mission

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July 15, 2015
RELEASE 15-152

Mountains on Pluto
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise — a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

Icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon, are among the several discoveries announced Wednesday by the NASA’s New Horizons team, just one day after the spacecraft’s first ever Pluto flyby.

“Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration showing us why basic scientific research is so important,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The mission has had nine years to build expectations about what we would see during closest approach to Pluto and Charon. Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected during those critical moments, and I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations.”

“Home run!” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “New Horizons is returning amazing results already. The data look absolutely gorgeous, and Pluto and Charon are just mind blowing.”

A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.

The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago — mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today.

“This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.

“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer at SwRI.

The new view of Charon reveals a youthful and varied terrain. Scientists are surprised by the apparent lack of craters. A swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely the result of internal geological processes. The image also shows a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 kilometers) deep. In Charon’s north polar region, the dark surface markings have a diffuse boundary, suggesting a thin deposit or stain on the surface.

New Horizons also observed the smaller members of the Pluto system, which includes four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. A new sneak-peak image of Hydra is the first to reveal its apparent irregular shape and its size, estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles (43 by 33 kilometers).

The observations also indicate Hydra’s surface is probably coated with water ice. Future images will reveal more clues about the formation of this and the other moon billions of years ago. Spectroscopic data from New Horizons’ Ralph instruments reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto.

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

Follow the New Horizons mission on Twitter and use the hashtag #PlutoFlyby to join the conversation. Live updates also will be available on the mission Facebook page.

For more information on the New Horizons mission, including fact sheets, schedules, video and all the new images, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons and http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/plutotoolkit.cfm.

NASA to Hold Media Call to Discuss Surprising Observations of Pluto’s Moons

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The NASA New Horizon’s Mission to Pluto, in a nutshell (Credit: NASA)

NASA will host a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 3, to discuss the Hubble Space Telescope’s surprising observations of how Pluto’s moons behave, and how these new discoveries are being used in the planning for the New Horizons Pluto flyby in July.
Participants in the teleconference will be:

  • John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington
  • Mark Showalter, senior research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California
  • Douglas Hamilton, professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, College Park
  • John Spencer, scientist at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado
  • Heidi Hammel, executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington

To participate by phone, reporters must contact Felicia Chou at 202-358-0257 or felicia.chou@nasa.gov and provide their media affiliation no later than 10 a.m. Wednesday.

NASA’s public flyer (2-page PDF) on the New Horizon’s Project at: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/NHMissionFS082114HiPrint.pdf

Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live at: http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio.

For information about NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/hubble.

For information about Pluto and NASA’s New Horizons mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/newhorizons.

Misson to Pluto’s and NASA’s key milestones for the New Horizons Spacecraft (Credit NASA)