JPL

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.

Is Curiosity responsible for Mars methane readings?

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Written by Chuck Bednar (@BednarChuck)
May 28, 2015 – redOrbit.com

Is this little guy just detecting his own methane gas? (Credit: NASA)
 

(Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck) One of the reasons the Curiosity rover was sent to Mars was to determine once and for all if the Red Planet was emitting methane, but could it have actually further muddled matters instead by giving off the chemical compound itself?

That’s the issue investigated by Johnny Bontemps of Astrobiology Magazine in a story published earlier this week by Discovery News. The gist of it is this: nearly five decades ago, Mariner 7 first purportedly detected methane near the south pole. While that turned out to be a false signal, orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes again detected methane in 2003 and 2004.

Read the rest of this entry »

Traffic Around Mars Gets Busy

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This graphic depicts the relative shapes and distances from Mars for five active orbiter missions plus the planet’s two natural satellites. It illustrates the potential for intersections of the spacecraft orbits. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech



Fast Facts:

  • Five active spacecraft are orbiting Mars, an increase of two since last summer
  • An enhanced system warns if two orbiters may approach each other too closely

NASA has beefed up a process of traffic monitoring, communication and maneuver planning to ensure that Mars orbiters do not approach each other too closely. 

Last year’s addition of two new spacecraft orbiting Mars brought the census of active Mars orbiters to five, the most ever. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission joined the 2003 Mars Express from ESA (the European Space Agency) and two from NASA: the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2006 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The newly enhanced collision-avoidance process also tracks the approximate location of NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, a 1997 orbiter that is no longer working.

It’s not just the total number that matters, but also the types of orbits missions use for achieving their science goals. MAVEN, which reached Mars on Sept. 21, 2014, studies the upper atmosphere. It flies an elongated orbit, sometimes farther from Mars than NASA’s other orbiters and sometimes closer to Mars, so it crosses altitudes occupied by those orbiters. For safety, NASA also monitors positions of ESA’s and India’s orbiters, which both fly elongated orbits.

“Previously, collision avoidance was coordinated between the Odyssey and MRO navigation teams,” said Robert Shotwell, Mars Program chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “There was less of a possibility of an issue. MAVEN’s highly elliptical orbit, crossing the altitudes of other orbits, changes the probability that someone will need to do a collision-avoidance maneuver. We track all the orbiters much more closely now. There’s still a low probability of needing a maneuver, but it’s something we need to manage.”

Traffic management at Mars is much less complex than in Earth orbit, where more than 1,000 active orbiters plus additional pieces of inactive hardware add to hazards. As Mars exploration intensifies, though, and will continue to do so with future missions, precautions are increasing. The new process was established to manage this growth as new members are added to the Mars orbital community in years to come.

All five active Mars orbiters use the communication and tracking services of NASA’s Deep Space Network, which is managed at JPL. This brings trajectory information together, and engineers can run computer projections of future trajectories out to a few weeks ahead for comparisons.

“It’s a monitoring function to anticipate when traffic will get heavy,” said Joseph Guinn, manager of JPL’s Mission Design and Navigation Section. “When two spacecraft are predicted to come too close to one another, we give people a heads-up in advance so the project teams can start coordinating about whether any maneuvers are needed.”

The amount of uncertainty in the predicted location of a Mars orbiter a few days ahead is more than a mile (more than two kilometers). Calculating projections for weeks ahead multiplies the uncertainty to dozens of miles, or kilometers. In most cases when a collision cannot be ruled out from projections two weeks ahead, improved precision in the forecasting as the date gets closer will rule out a collision with no need for avoidance action. Mission teams for the relevant orbiters are notified in advance when projections indicate a collision is possible, even if the possibility will likely disappear in subsequent projections. This situation occurred on New Year’s weekend, 2015.

On Jan. 3, automated monitoring determined that two weeks later, MAVEN and MRO could come within about two miles (three kilometers) of each other, with large uncertainties remaining in the exact passing distance. Although that was a Saturday, automatic messages went out to the teams operating the orbiters.

“In this case, before the timeline got short enough to need to plan an avoidance maneuver, the uncertainties shrank, and that ruled out the chance of the two spacecraft coming too near each other,” Guinn said. This is expected to be the usual pattern, with the advance warning kicking off higher-level monitoring and initial discussions about options.

If preparations for an avoidance maneuver were called for, spacecraft commands would be written, tested and approved for readiness, but such commands would not be sent to a spacecraft unless projections a day or two ahead showed probability of a hazardous conjunction. The amount of uncertainty about each spacecraft’s exact location varies, so the proximity considered unsafe also varies. For some situations, a day-ahead projection of two craft coming within about 100 yards (100 meters) of each other could trigger a maneuver.

The new formal collision-avoidance process for Mars is part of NASA’s Multi-Mission Automated Deep-Space Conjunction Assessment Process. A side benefit of it is that information about when two orbiters will be near each other — though safely apart — could be used for planning coordinated science observations. The pair could look at some part of Mars or its atmosphere from essentially the same point of view simultaneously with complementary instruments.

Odyssey, MRO and MAVEN — together with NASA’s two active Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit — are part of NASA’s robotic exploration of Mars that is preparing the way for human-crewed missions there in the 2030s and later, in NASA’s Journey to Mars strategy.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the MAVEN project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages NASA’s Mars Exploration Program and the Odyssey and MRO projects for the Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built all three NASA Mars orbiters.

For more about NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, visit:  http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov or http://www.nasa.gov/mars.

 

NASA Administrator Statement on House Authorization Bill That “Guts the Earth Science Programs”

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April 30, 2015
RELEASE 15-080
NASA Administrator Statement on House Authorization Bill 

The following is a statement from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on the House of Representatives’ NASA authorization bill:

“The NASA authorization bill making its way through the House of Representatives guts our Earth science program and threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.   

“NASA leads the world in the exploration of and study of planets, and none is more important than the one on which we live.

“In addition, the bill underfunds the critical space technologies that the nation will need to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars.”

Dawn’s Ceres Color Map Reveals Surface Diversity

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Dawn’s First Color Map of Ceres Dawn VIR Images of Ceres This map-projected view of Ceres was created from images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft during its initial approach to the dwarf planet, prior to being captured into orbit in March 2015. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
 


A new color map of dwarf planet Ceres, which NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been orbiting since March, reveals the diversity of the surface of this planetary body. Differences in morphology and color across the surface suggest Ceres was once an active body, Dawn researchers said today at the 2015 General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna. 

“This dwarf planet was not just an inert rock throughout its history. It was active, with processes that resulted in different materials in different regions. We are beginning to capture that diversity in our color images,” said Chris Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission, based at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

The Dawn mission made history on March 6 as the first spacecraft to reach a dwarf planet, and the first spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets. Previously, Dawn studied giant asteroid Vesta from 2011 to 2012, uncovering numerous insights about its geology and history. While Vesta is a dry body, Ceres is believed to be 25 percent water ice by mass. By comparing Vesta and Ceres, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the formation of the solar system. 

Ceres’ surface is heavily cratered, as expected, but appears to have fewer large craters than scientists anticipated. It also has a pair of very bright neighboring spots in its northern hemisphere. More detail will emerge after the spacecraft begins its first intensive science phase on April 23, from a distance of 8,400 miles (13,500 kilometers) from the surface, said Martin Hoffmann, investigator on the Dawn framing camera team, based at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany. 

The visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIR), an imaging spectrometer that examines Ceres in visible and infrared light, has been examining the relative temperatures of features on Ceres’ surface. Preliminary examination suggests that different bright regions on Ceres’ surface behave differently, said Federico Tosi, investigator from the VIR instrument team at the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology, and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, Rome. 

Based on observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, planetary scientists have identified 10 bright regions on Ceres’ surface. One pair of bright spots, by far the brightest visible marks on Ceres, appears to be located in a region that is similar in temperature to its surroundings. But a different bright feature corresponds to a region that is cooler than the rest of Ceres’ surface. 

The origins of Ceres’ bright spots, which have captivated the attention of scientists and the public alike, remain unknown. It appears the brightest pair is located in a crater 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide. As Dawn gets closer to the surface of Ceres, better-resolution images will become available.

“The bright spots continue to fascinate the science team, but we will have to wait until we get closer and are able to resolve them before we can determine their source,” Russell said. 

Both Vesta and Ceres are located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Dawn spacecraft will continue studying Ceres through June 2016. 

Dawn’s mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Dawn is a project of the directorate’s Discovery Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. UCLA is responsible for overall Dawn mission science. Orbital ATK Inc., in Dulles, Virginia, designed and built the spacecraft. The German Aerospace Center, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Italian Space Agency and Italian National Astrophysical Institute are international partners on the mission team. For a complete list of mission participants, visit: 

http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/

For more information about Dawn, visit:

http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov

Components of Beagle 2 Flight System on Mars

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PRESS RELEASE (JPL) – The Beagle 2 Mars Lander, built by the United Kingdom, has been thought lost on Mars since 2003, but has now been found in images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Beagle 2 was released by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter but never heard from after its expected landing. Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been interpreted as showing the Beagle 2 did make a soft landing and at least partially deployed its solar panels.

A set of three observations with the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows Beagle 2 partially deployed on the surface of the planet, ending the mystery of what happened to the mission more than a decade ago. They show that the lander survived its Dec. 25, 2003, touchdown enough to at least partially deploy its solar arrays.

“I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars,” said Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, U.K. He was an integral part of the Beagle 2 project from the start, leading the initial study phase and was Beagle 2 mission manager. “Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2. My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars. To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars.

HiRISE images initially searched by Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, a former member of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express operations team, provide evidence for the lander and key descent components on the surface of Mars within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia, an impact basin close to the equator.

Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 team, the HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, have confirmed that the targets discovered are of the correct size, shape, color and dispersion to be Beagle 2. JPL planetary geologist Tim Parker, who has assisted in the search and processed some of the images said, “I’ve been looking over the objects in the images carefully, and I’m convinced that these are Beagle 2 hardware.”

Analysis of the images indicates what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue chute (still attached) and main parachute close by. Due to the small size of Beagle 2 (less than 7 feet, or 2 meters across for the deployed lander) it is right at the limit of detection of HiRISE, the highest-resolution camera orbiting Mars. The targets are within the expected landing area at a distance of about three miles (five kilometers) from its center.

“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle 2 team must feel,” said Richard Zurek of JPL, project scientist now for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and previously for NASA’s still-missing 1998 Mars Polar Lander. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task, as the craft are small and the search areas are vast. It takes the best camera we have in Mars orbit and work by dedicated individuals to be successful at this.”

HiRISE is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson. The instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project is managed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

View all images (color) on JPL site

For more information about HiRISE

Additional information about MRO

Media Contact

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
818-354-6278
guy.webster@jpl.nasa.gov