Two years ago today (July 14), our New Horizons spacecraft made its closest flyby of Pluto…collecting images and science that revealed a geologically complex world. Data from this mission are helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system.
The spacecraft is now venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt…a relic of solar system formation…to reach its next target. On New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will zoom past a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69.
The Kuiper Belt is a disc-shaped region of icy bodies – including dwarf planets such as Pluto – and comets beyond the orbit of Neptune. It extends from about 30 to 55 Astronomical Units (an AU is the distance from the sun to Earth) and is probably populated with hundreds of thousands of icy bodies larger than 62 miles across, and an estimated trillion or more comets.
Nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto, you may be asking how the spacecraft will function for the 2014 MU69 flyby. Well, New Horizons was originally designed to fly far beyond the Pluto system and explore deeper into the Kuiper Belt.
The spacecraft carries extra hydrazine fuel for the flyby; its communications system is designed to work from beyond Pluto; its power system is designed to operate for many more years; and its scientific instruments were designed to operate in light levels much lower than it will experience during the 2014 MU69 flyby.
What have we learned about Pluto since its historic flyby in 2015?
During its encounter, the New Horizons spacecraft collected more than 1,200 images of Pluto and tens of gigabits of data. The intensive downlinking of information took about a year to return to Earth! Here are a few things we’ve discovered:
Pluto Has a Heart
This image captured by New Horizons around 16 hours before its closest approach shows Pluto’s “heart.” This stunning image of one of its most dominant features shows us that the heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago. This image also showed us that Pluto is a complex world with incredible geological diversity.
Pluto’s vast icy plain, informally called Sputnik Planitia, resembles frozen mud cracks on Earth. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs.
Images from the spacecraft display chaotically jumbled mountains that only add to the complexity of Pluto’s geography. The rugged, icy mountains are as tall as 11,000 feet high.
This high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. The surface of tPluto has a remarkable range of subtle color variations. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story.
Foggy Haze and Blue Atmosphere
Images returned from the New Horizons spacecraft have also revealed that Pluto’s global atmospheric haze has many more layers than scientists realized. The haze even creates a twilight effect that softly illuminates nightside terrain near sunset, which makes them visible to the cameras aboard the spacecraft.
New Horizons detected numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto. Scientists are eager to understand why water appears exactly where it does, and not in other places.
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