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True color images show reddish hue believed to come from radiation-produced organic compounds

This morning at 8 a.m. the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) published mankind's closest ever view of the dwarf planet Pluto (no need for drama, it's a planet people, but a lesser one -- see: Eris (formerly known as Xena)) in glorious high definition detail.

The shot was snapped by the New Horizons probe, which also captured impressive images of Pluto.  President Obama shared the colorized version of one of these images on Twitter, Inc. (TWTR): The shots have been a long time coming.  New Horizons launched in January 2006.  Along its journey the probe snapped shots of the gas giant Jupiter during a flyby in 2007.  But the real highlight would not be reached until the craft had travelled in space for nearly a decade.  That highlight is Pluto.

The dwarf planet had never been explored prior to New Horizons.  The probe upends many preconceptions about Pluto, instead revealing a world that has much in common with some large moons, color and chemistry-wise.  Spectroscopy reveals that unlike Mars, whose red tint comes from iron oxide, the red color of the 'Other' Red Planet...

pluto -- color
Pluto, in color [Image Source: NASA]

...comes from organic compounds.  NASA chemists believe that ultraviolet light from the sun -- dubbed "Lyman-alpha" rays -- energizes methane gas (CH4) in Pluto's atmosphere causing it to react to form a class of compounds known as "tholins".  The tholin products -- too heavy to stay airborne, plummet from the atmosphere, coating the surface of the planet in "gunk".  The tholins reflect red wavelengths, leading to a hue similar to iron oxide deposits.
tholins
The proposed chemical structure of Titan's tholins is seen. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Tholins are also believed to give Saturn's largest moon Titan and Neptune's largest moon Triton their distinctive shades of red.  Researchers believe that the seeding of Earth with comments rich in tholins may have played a critical role in the formation of life on Earth (abiogenesis).

Here's Pluto in grayscale:

Pluto black and white
Pluto, in grayscale [Image Source: NASA]

Aside from identifying clues to Pluto's composition and color, the probe also definitively measured the size of Pluto for the first time, identifying it as being 1,473 miles (2,370 kilometers) in diameter.  Here's an infographic NASA made to compare Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, to the Earth:

Pluto size
Pluto and Charon are fairly smalled compared to Earth. [Image Source: NASA]

... the probe also spotted intriguing geologic patterns on Pluto, which could be signs of unlikely volcanism, or perhaps some sort of seismic activity.

The mission also has given remarkable images of and insight into Charon.  As previously expected the moon is heavily covered in ice, but more exotic suprises also awaited the probe.

A hitherto unidentified system of gaping cracks on the planet's surface was spotted, among other things.  Some of these chasms are bigger than the Grand Canyon.  Also of note was a large equitorial impact crater and a dark polar region thtat could hint at chemicals of interest.

Charon images
Charon in grayscale (left) and in color [Image Source: NASA]

At night on Pluto -- where a day lasts 6 Earth "days" and 10 Earth "hours" -- the only light is "Charonshine", reflected light from the satellite, similar to Moonshine illumination on Earth.

Pluto Charonshine
An artist's depiction shows nighttime "Charonshine" on Pluto's surface. [Image Source: NASA]

The probe's mission is far from over: next up for it is further exploration of the Kuiper belt. New Horizons was the first probe to explore a Kuiper belt object.  The Kuiper belt is a region in the outer reaches of the Solars System beyond the planet Neptune.  Rich in rocky and icy bodies, the Kuiper belt is similar in composition to the asteroid belt of the inner solar system.

You can follow realtime updates on the New Horizons mission on Twitter via NASA's account for probe -- @NASANewHorizons.

Sources: NASA, @POTUS on Twitter





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