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Dim, distant Pluto shines in Carolinas astronomers’ eyes

Planetoid Pluto is pictured from NASA’s New Horizons as the spacecraft was 476,000 miles from the surface.  This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles across. Even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless, possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes, mission specialists say.
Planetoid Pluto is pictured from NASA’s New Horizons as the spacecraft was 476,000 miles from the surface. This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles across. Even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless, possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes, mission specialists say. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

What a world! An alien spacecraft that whipped past planetoid Pluto this week began sending postcards Wednesday to the species that launched it.

Some members of that distant civilization, known as Earthling astronomers, were dazzled by the pictures returned by NASA’s New Horizons probe, particularly those showing a huge heart-shaped formation on Pluto.

“It’s good to see Pluto still has a heart,” said Grant Thompson, who teaches astronomy at Wingate University in Wingate. “Those formations show that it’s probably varying compositions.”

Pluto was considered a planet when it was discovered in 1930, but it was reclassified by astronomers as a dwarf planet in 2006 when other worlds were being discovered in remote reaches of the solar system early this century. There are nearly a dozen ones known that rival Pluto in size with names such as Ceres, Eris and Makemake.

$720 million Cost of mission

3 billion miles Earth to Pluto

31,000 mph Speed of spacecraft, faster than a bullet

Data from New Horizons this week finally confirmed that Pluto is the largest known of those deep-space planetoids, which heartened Thompson, a big fan of the little world.

“I’m happy that it’s finally settled as the largest dwarf planet out there,” Thompson said. “Pluto is up on that pedestal.”

Expecting the unexpected

Dan Caton, who teaches astronomy at Appalachian State University in Boone and directs the school’s observatories, said he expects plenty of surprises as New Horizons spends the next 16 months returning data on its close encounter.

“I’m intrigued by the big white heart feature,” said Caton. “What is that? Is that ice or a plain?”

He said astronomers will have to wait until planetary geologists interpret pictures to learn about Pluto’s surface.

I’m intrigued by the big white heart feature. What is that? Is that ice or a plain?

Dan Caton, ASU astronomer

Caton once met Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto while working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Tombaugh died in 1997 at age 90, but he’s still on the go – a few ounces of his ashes are aboard New Horizons.

Caton said one aspect of the mission involves national heritage.

“We are still very good at rocket science and space science,” he said. “People need to step back and take some pride in that.”

Images released by NASA and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory show mostly rugged surfaces on Pluto and its major moon Charon, which was discovered in 1978.

“This mission will help solve some of the questions we have about the origin of the solar system, the nature of the Kuiper belt – the region of our solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune – and of course the makeup of Pluto and its moons,” said T.J. Lipinski, who teaches physics and geology at Winthrop University in Rock Hill.

“Some of its amazing mysteries will be revealed, and entire new mysteries will be pondered.”

A milestone exploration

Kristen Thompson, who teaches physics and astronomy at Davidson College in Davidson, said the early pictures from New Horizons represent a quantum leap in the imaging of Pluto.

“Even if you look at images the Hubble Space Telescope has taken of Pluto, as small as it is, it appears to be a blur, a dot of light in the sky with vague shadings,” said Thompson.

“We can see things like crater and surface features on Charon. We can now see there is some kind of polar ice caps. And the ‘heart’ is visible.”

Thompson said the probe represents the end of 50 years of planetary exploration by mankind. It will take years to fully analyze the information coming from the edge of the planetary fringe, she said.

Mountains and canyons in Pluto system

Scientists said Wednesday the first pictures from New Horizons show deep canyons on Pluto’s big moon Charon and mountains as tall as the Rockies on Pluto itself.

No major impact craters were seen on Pluto, meaning some process has renewed the crust in relatively recent geologic time. There was evidence of water ice on the surface.

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