New Horizon flyby of Pluto: what a journey!

The New Horizon space probe has reached the dwarf planet Pluto and started sending back to Earth interesting data which are getting astronomers and planet scientists really excited.

Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (Florida, US) almost a decade ago (January 19th, 2006), New Horizon swung past Jupiter for a gravity slingshot boost in February 2007 and has finally reached Pluto last week. It is now officially out of its nine-day close flyby period – the time when it was the closest to the dwarf planet – and has started sending back data.

New Horizon is revealing a lot about the dwarf planet Pluto (credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

New Horizon is revealing a lot about the dwarf planet Pluto (credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The probe is transmitting all the acquired data here down to Earth for scientists to have a good look at it, and the surprises are not lacking. Pluto is not, as it has long been thought, a featureless snowball, but rather a world full of icy geological activity. It has a polar cap of methane and nitrogen, vast plains, canyons and mountains. There are also vast regions without meteorite craters, which suggests they must be relatively young – 100 million years old, at most.

Also quite surprisingly, Pluto seems to possess a source of heating, possibly a radioactive core, icy volcanoes or geysers and perhaps tectonic plates. Scientists do not have hard evidence for any erupting geyser-like plumes yet though, but they hope to find more clues in the data which is still on its way and which will still take months to arrive in full.

Also gathering some attention is Pluto’s evaporating atmosphere. It is made of nitrogen and, most curiously, it has been observed forming a tail-like trace some 109,000 km-long behind the dwarf planet. Now, this is quite mysterious as the planet must have had this evaporating atmosphere for ‘quite a while’ in astronomical time scales, so scientists are quite puzzled about what could be the source that keeps replenishing it.

Eyes are also pointed at Charon – one of Pluto’s moons (together with Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra). Charon is half the size of Pluto, but only ten percent of its weight. Charon’s surface is heavily dotted with craters and, like Pluto, it displays rift valleys and tall mountains – one of which seems to have caused the surrounding terrain to sink under its weight. Charon also possesses a big dark pole of which very little is known.

It is needless to say that scientists are excited. New Horizon has, in fact, only sent just a small fraction of all the collected data. “At the data rate we have […] it takes over 2 hours to downlink a standard picture from your cell phone! That means we will spend the next 16 months transmitting all the data down to Earth,” Curt Niebur from NASA commented. In the end, New Horizon is controlled by a hardened version of the original PlayStation One chip, running at 33 MHz – it was launched in 2006 after all – and the data transfer rate is only 1-2 kilobits per second over the few billion kilometres that separate it from Earth.

If you want to follow the latest updates on the Pluto mission here is the link to the relevant NASA website.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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