The US space agency NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is all set to uncover possible clouds on Pluto and then move to the next target, a small object located in Kuiper Belt nearly 1 billion miles beyond the dwarf planet Pluto. The small object has a reddish appearance which excites scientists for further exploration.
The findings will be presented this week at the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) and European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) in Pasadena, California.
“We’re excited about the exploration ahead for New Horizons, and also about what we are still discovering from Pluto flyby data,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Now, with our spacecraft transmitting the last of its data from last summer’s flight through the Pluto system, we know that the next great exploration of Pluto will require another mission to be sent there.”
While examining the images beamed back by the New Horizons, researchers found that most of the atmosphere of Pluto appears clear. However, some part of Pluto might contain clouds as suggested by the images. Missions scientists are excited to unveil the reality of Pluto’s atmosphere because existence of clouds would mean that Pluto has much complex atmosphere and boasts weather patterns.
Observing the dwarf planet from the telescope only suggested about the complex atmospheric composition of Pluto, but the New Horizons has that Pluto’s icy surface is one the brightest regions in the solar system. “That brightness indicates surface activity,” said Bonnie Buratti, a science team co-investigator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “Because we see a pattern of high surface reflectivity equating to activity, we can infer that the dwarf planet Eris, which is known to be highly reflective, is also likely to be active.”
Scientists have spotted almost all kinds of activities on Pluto except one which has surprised scientists a lot — landslides. Surprisingly, though, they have been spotted on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, itself some 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) across. “We’ve seen similar landslides on other rocky and icy planets, such as Mars and Saturn’s moon Iapetus, but these are the first landslides we’ve seen this far from the sun, in the Kuiper Belt,” said Ross Beyer, a science team researcher from Sagan Center at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center, California. “The big question is will they be detected elsewhere in the Kuiper Belt?”
Both Hubble and cameras on the New Horizons spacecraft have been aimed at KBOs over the past two years, with New Horizons taking advantage of its unique vantage point in the Kuiper Belt to observe nearly a dozen small worlds in this barely explored region. MU69 is actually the smallest KBO to have its color measured – and scientists have used that data to confirm the object is part of the so-called cold classical region of the Kuiper Belt, which is believed to contain some of the oldest, most prehistoric material in the solar system.
“The reddish color tells us the type of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 is,” said Amanda Zangari, a New Horizons post-doctoral researcher from Southwest Research Institute. “The data confirms that on New Year’s Day 2019, New Horizons will be looking at one of the ancient building blocks of the planets.”
The New Horizons spacecraft is currently 3.4 billion miles (5.5 billion kilometers) from Earth and about 340 million miles (540 million kilometers) beyond Pluto, speeding away from the sun at about nine miles (14 kilometers) every second. About 99 percent of the data New Horizons gathered and stored on its digital recorders during the Pluto encounter has now been transmitted back to Earth, with that transmission set to be completed Oct. 23. New Horizons has covered about one-third of the distance from Pluto to its next flyby target, which is now about 600 million miles (nearly 1 billion kilometers) ahead.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. In addition to being the home of the mission principal investigator, SwRI, based in San Antonio, leads the science team, payload operations and science planning. New Horizons is the first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama