Thursday, July 16, 2015

Stellar Research: Pluto and the New Horizons Spacecraft

Pluto's Heart as photographed from the NASA spacecraft New 
Horizons.  Image courtesy of NASA/Johns Hopkins University 
Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.  July 14, 
2015. 
On July 14, 2015, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons made history by successfully passing Pluto within the dwarf planet's orbit.  Over a span of twelve hours, New Horizons collected scientific data from, and images of, Pluto and its five known moons.  In the words of New Horizons' principal investigator Alan Stern, "Following in the footsteps of planetary exploration missions such as Mariner, Pioneer, and Voyager, New Horizons has triumphed at Pluto.  The New Horizons flyby completes the first era of planetary reconnaissance, a half-century-long endeavor that will forever be a legacy of our time."

On July 15, 2015, this historic exploration mission began sending back to Earth the data it was launched to gather--data which has already begun to change astrological scientific theory.  According to New Horizons' science team, the photo below (of approximately 1% of Pluto’s surface) reveals many telling attributes of the dwarf planet, including mountain peaks over 11,000 ft. high and an unexpected lack of crater marks.  These features tell scientists that Pluto's surface has not been around long enough to have experienced heavy meteor activity or long-term erosion, and is therefore a relatively young site of recent geological activity.

It was believed that Pluto could not be geologically active so long after its formation, and that small icy planets of Pluto's age could only be so due to tidal heating (a process whereby energy is produced by the changing pull of gravity, as seen on Saturn's moon Titan).  The discovery that Pluto is the site of geological activity means that isolated small planets can be geologically active after 400 million years without tidal heating from an orbited giant gas planet.

Ice Mountains on Pluto as photographed from the NASA spacecraft New Horizons.  Image courtesy of 
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.  July 14, 2015.  
As the data comes in, more will be revealed about the nature of smaller ice planets that will hopefully provide us with a stronger understanding of our universe.  The science behind this mission, however, did not begin with these latest revelations about Pluto. 

Expectations and theoretical models pre-dating the lead-up to the launch of New Horizons can be found using several of the databases--including ScienceDirect, Science & Technology Collection, and Scopus--to which the TWU Libraries provide access.  The number of journal articles and papers will continue to grow as New Horizons mission data flows in.

It is an exciting time to be alive, as we begin to explore the outer reaches of our solar system.

For assistance with science research and related questions, please contact the TWU Libraries' Sciences Librarian Suzi Townsdin at stownsdin@twu.edu or 940-898-3297.  

~Jeremy Kincaid

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