Category Archives: New Horizons

Polar Cap on Pluto?


The New Horizons spacecraft took a great set of images from a distance of 113 million km / 70 million miles using the LORRI camera. We are begining to see surface features. Here’s the New Horizon team’s description:

Pluto and Charon rotate around a center-of-mass (also called the “barycenter”) once every 6.4 Earth days, and these LORRI images capture one complete rotation of the system. The direction of the rotation axis is shown in the figure. In one of these movies, the center of Pluto is kept fixed in the frame, while the other movie is fixed on the center of mass (accounting for the “wobble” in the system as Charon orbits Pluto).

The 3x-magnified view of Pluto highlights the changing brightness across the disk of Pluto as it rotates. Because Pluto is tipped on its side (like Uranus), when observing Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft, one primarily sees one pole of Pluto, which appears to be brighter than the rest of the disk in all the images. Scientists suggest this brightening in Pluto’s polar region might be caused by a “cap” of highly reflective snow on the surface. The “snow” in this case is likely to be frozen molecular nitrogen ice. New Horizons observations in July will determine definitively whether or not this hypothesis is correct.

In addition to the polar cap, these images reveal changing brightness patterns from place to place as Pluto rotates, presumably caused by large-scale dark and bright patches at different longitudes on Pluto’s surface. In all of these images, a mathematical technique called “deconvolution” is used to improve the resolution of the raw LORRI images, restoring nearly the full resolution allowed by the camera’s optics and detector.

Be sure to click here to see another “movie” which shows the barycentric motion beautifully.

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Pluto and Charon


This image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken by the Ralph color imager aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on April 9 and downlinked to Earth the following day. It is the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach. The image is a preliminary reconstruction, which will be refined later by the New Horizons science team. Clearly visible are both Pluto and the Texas-sized Charon. The image was made from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers)-roughly the distance from the Sun to Venus. At this distance, neither Pluto nor Charon is well resolved by the color imager, but their distinctly different appearances can be seen. As New Horizons approaches its flyby of Pluto on July 14, it will deliver color images that eventually show surface features as small as a few miles across.

Original content at New Horizons website

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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There’s Still Time

Artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in July 2015. Image and caption Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben

To help name soon to be discovered features on Pluto and its satellites. New Horizon’s is about to give us our first ever look at the Plutonion system as it speeds by at nearly 50,000 kmh / 31,000 mph making its close approach on 14 July.

The deadline has been extended until 24 April 2015.

“I’m impressed with the more than 40,000 thoughtful submissions,” said Mark Showalter, scientist New Horizons science team co-investigator, and SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which is hosting the naming website. “Every day brings new lessons in the world’s history, literature and mythology. Participation has come from nearly every country on Earth, so this really is a worldwide campaign.”

The rules are pretty simple but need to be followed. Go to the nomination page at to see the criteria and nominate a name.

Don’t miss out you probably won’t get another chance.

The image is an artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passes Pluto and Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, in July 2015.  Image and caption Credit: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben


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Hydra and Nix Spotted

New Horizons spots Plutonian moons Nix and Hydra. Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
New Horizons spots Plutonian moons Nix and Hydra. Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

We now have our first look at the Pluto moon Hydra and Nix from New Horizons.

The two moon were only discovered in 2005 thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope and now we are getting a look at them from an inbound spacecraft.

Both moons are around 40 to 150 km (25 to 95 miles) in diameter.

Hydra is the outer moon and orbits Pluto every 38 days from a distance of 64,700 km / 40,200 miles.

Nix, the inner moon orbits every 25 days from 48,700 km / 30,260 miles.

Consider all of those numbers “rough” for now. It won’t be long and we will have accurate data!

The LORRI camera took these image from distances ranging from 201 million to 186 million km (125 million to 113 million miles) away and even in the feeble sunlight they are almost hidden in the glare of Pluto.

There are two more moons yet to be seen, they are smaller than Hydra and Nix. Their names are Styx and Kerberos, we will indeed see them in time.

I have little doubt these little moons are going to every bit as interesting as Pluto.

The images here are a sample of seven frames taken and put into an animation you can see along with much more detail at the New Horizons site.

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Pluto’s Dance

Pluto and Charon. Image Credit: NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute
Pluto and Charon. Image Credit: NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute

A new release from the New Horizons spacecraft shows Pluto and the moon Charon in their dance. The animation is made from images taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager also known as LORRI over the course of a week.

The pair were observed for a complete rotation of each body, which is 6.4 Earth-days. The distance to Pluto and Charon changed from 126 million miles at the beginning to 121 million miles at the end. Like the exciting ESA Rosetta mission around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and NASA’s Dawn mission now approaching Ceres, the views will be improving dramatically in the near future.

Pluto can be seen wobbling as Charon orbits, this is not an artifact. Charon is about one-eigth the mass of Pluto and is only 18,000 km / 11,200 miles away so they orbit around a common center of gravity and each body tugging on the other. The result is the wobble. This type of wobble is what some of the Exo-planet hunters look for too. The difference they are watching for a entire stars to wobble as a planet tugs on it and that wobble is exceedingly tiny – amazing really.

Check out the New Horizons site for more details.

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The Tombaugh Family

Thought you’d enjoy this video from NOVA. Just look at those old telescopes! :mrgreen:

Clyde Tombaugh the discoverer of Pluto was was born on on 04 February 1906 and died 17 January 1997. The New Horizons spacecraft is fast approaching Pluto.

From the New Horizons site:

“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.”

There are new images from a 25 and 27 January and they were put into a animation showing both Pluto and Charon. The site has another video about Clyde Tombaugh and a great update to the mission – be certain to check it out.

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Waiting for Pluto

New Horizons LORRI image while passing Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
New Horizons LORRI image while passing Jupiter. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Here is an image from the New Horizon’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as it was passing by the Jupiter system on 02 March 2007.

The image shown is actually a merger of two images one from LORRI which is a high resolution black-and-white image and a lower resolution color image from teh MVIC or Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera. The result is amazing as you can see.

The image shows the Jupiter moons Io and Europa. Io shows the 300 km / 190 mile high volcanic plume from the Tvashtar volcano. There are two other plumes one from the volcano Prometheus (look at the edge at the 9 o’clock position) and Amirana located between the Prometheus and Tvashtar.

Looks can be deceiving too. while Europa appears more distant, it is 790,000 km / 490,000 miles closer then Io.  From the image caption:

This image was taken from a range of 4.6 million kilometers (2.8 million miles) from Io and 3.8 million kilometers (2.4 million miles) from Europa.

The bright crescents are from sunshine as you might expect and the nighttime side of Io is lit by reflected light from Jupiter.

For more details about the image have a look at CICLOPS, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations

Just imagine what awaits at Pluto!

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New Horizons Wakes Up

A replay of “Waking Up On Pluto’s Doorstep: New Horizons Comes Out of Hibernation” by The Planetary Society.

The Planetary Society show was held while waiting for the signal from New Horizons saying it had awakened and is powering up onboard systems. In the meantime (before and after) there is a great discussion of the Deep Space Network and tweeted questions including one I had myself: What about unknown objects the spacecraft may encounter? Pluto has five moons (distance ordered): Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, there could be many objects we can not detect.

A brief discussion about what happens after the Pluto encounter is over, hint: it’s not over for New Horizons.


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New Horizons

New Horizons powers systems up and comes out of hibernation for the home stretch of its journey. Wake up is scheduled for 15:00 EST / 20:00 UTC today (06 Dec 2014). If power up is successful New Horizons will transmit a radio signal back to Earth. It will take 4.5 hours for the radio signal to reach us.


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Charon in Orbit

The moon Charon orbiting Pluto at a distance of 18,000 km / 11,200 miles from the New Horizons spacecraft.  Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
The moon Charon orbiting Pluto at a distance of 18,000 km / 11,200 miles from the New Horizons spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

A nice animation of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon in orbit around Pluto. The animation was made in July 2014 from 12 images taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. At the time of the photos New Horizons was closing in quickly on Pluto. The distance to the Plutonian system ranged from 429 million to 422 million km (or 267 million to 262 million miles) in the time it took to take the images. Shortly after this set of images was taken New Horizons went back into a hibernation mode, the last one.

On Saturday (06 Dec 2014) at 15:00 EST / 20:00 UTC, the instruments on the New Horizons spacecraft will be switched on as the craft comes out of hibernation and gets ready to do some serious science!

The first thing on the agenda is, as you might guess, telling mission control it is alive and well and in “active” mode. The transmission from New Horizons is scheduled to occur 90 minutes after the spacecraft wakes up, so that will be at 16:30 EST / 21:30 UTC. When will we hear the good news signal? Not until 4 hours and 25 minutes later, it takes that long for radio signals to travel the 4.7 billion km / 2.9 billion miles from New Horizons at the speed of light!

A long way from home and closing in on the prize.  The spacecraft will be just 162 million miles from Pluto when it wakes up.

New Horizons

By the way if you notice a wobble in the image above, it occurs because Charon is a very large moon compared to Pluto and they orbit around their common center of gravity – the barycenter.

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