January 14 Meeting: New Horizons at Ultima Thule

Image: Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object.
Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt Object. Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

Kai Getrost, CAA member and member of the NASA MU69 Occultation Team, will be program presenter at the January 14 meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA). Getrost will discuss the latest news about what we’ve learned, how we got there, and how he was involved in the mission on three science trips to South America.

This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image taken by the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) is the most detailed of Ultima Thule returned so far by the New Horizons spacecraft. It was taken at 5:01 Universal Time on January 1, 2019, just 30 minutes before closest approach from a range of 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers), with an original scale of 730 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The successful January 1 flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69/Ultima Thule came after extensive work by the scientists and technicians running the New Horizons mission. Largely unknown, invisible to the public, were efforts on the part of others to accurately locate the spacecraft’s target of opportunity subsequent to Pluto. Teams of astronomers were dispatched with portable telescopes and computers to observe and time occultations of stars by the invisible (it’s only about 20 miles long and is 4 billion miles away) target object; the exact location and improved orbital information of Ultima Thule was derived from those observations. Occultation refers to the moment the light from a distant star is blocked by an object nearer the observer.

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks. Meeting programs are open to the public.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

October 9: Monthly Membership Meeting

New Horizons Spacecraft - Artist's depiction of the spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto/Charon system in July 2015. Image Credit: NASA
New Horizons Spacecraft – Artist’s depiction of the spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto/Charon system in July 2015. Image Credit: NASA

The Monthly Membership Meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) will take place on Monday, October 9, beginning at 7:30 PM. An astronomy presentation is first, followed by a social break, and wrapped up with the club’s business meeting.

The night’s program will be a presentation by CAA member Kai Getrost entitled “New Horizons’ Next Target: The Kuiper Belt.” Getrost enjoyed the adventure of a lifetime, traveling to Argentina as part of a 50-team effort to observe and record data on a rare Kuiper Belt object occultation. A distant object, selected as the next object for study by the New Horizons spacecraft, passed in front of a star; data collected from the event has given astronomers a better understanding of the distance and movement of their target.

Free and open to the public, the program and meeting will take place at the at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

New Horizons images the icy “heart” of Pluto

Photo: Icy Plains of Pluto
The Icy “Sputnik Planum” Area on Pluto – Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named Tombaugh Regio – lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image, released July 17, was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image.

Photo: Annotated View of "Sputnik Planum" Area of Pluto.
Annotated Version of “Sputnik Planum” Image -Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto: First, best look at a mysterious world

Photo: Pluto as seen by NASA's New Horizons, July 13, 2015
New Horizons’ View of Pluto, July 13, 2015 – Credits: NASA/APL/SwRI

Pluto nearly fills the frame in this image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13, 2015 when the spacecraft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) from the surface. This is the last and most detailed image sent to Earth before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The color image has been combined with lower-resolution color information from the Ralph instrument that was acquired earlier on July 13. This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. The heart borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) are complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart’s interior appears remarkably featureless — possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.

After a decade-long journey through our solar system, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto Tuesday, about 7,750 miles above the surface making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. The three-billion-mile journey took about one minute less than predicted when the craft was launched in January 2006. The spacecraft threaded the needle through a 36-by-57 mile (60 by 90 kilometers) window in space — the equivalent of a commercial airliner arriving no more off target than the width of a tennis ball.

Photo: Clyde Tombaugh
Clyde Tombaugh

The Pluto story began only a generation ago when young Clyde Tombaugh was tasked to look for Planet X, theorized to exist beyond the orbit of Neptune. He discovered a faint point of light that we now see as a complex and fascinating world. As a tribute to Tombaugh, who died in 1997 at age 90, a tiny canister of his ashes was placed inside the New Horizons spacecraft.

“Pluto was discovered just 85 years ago by a farmer’s son from Kansas, inspired by a visionary from Boston, using a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Today, science takes a great leap observing the Pluto system up close and flying into a new frontier that will help us better understand the origins of the solar system.”

New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.

Exciting images of Pluto’s largest moon — or co-dwarf planet — Charon were also captured.

Photo: Pluto's largest moon, Charon. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Charon, Pluto’s Largest “Moon” – Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Remarkable new details of Pluto’s largest moon Charon are revealed in this image from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), taken late on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles.

A swath of cliffs and troughs stretches about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from left to right, suggesting widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust, likely a result of internal processes. At upper right, along the moon’s curving edge, is a canyon estimated to be four to six miles (seven to nine kilometers) deep.

New Horizons traveled more than three billion miles over nine-and-a-half years to reach the Pluto system.

Spacecraft returns early images hinting surface features on Pluto, possible polar cap

Pluto and Charon. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI
Click for Full-Size View. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

For the first time, images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are revealing bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto – the primary target of the New Horizons close flyby in mid-July.

The images were captured in early to mid-April from within 70 million miles (113 million kilometers), using the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed images beamed back to Earth. New Horizons scientists interpreted the data to reveal the dwarf planet has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap.

“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.”

Also captured in the images is Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit. The exposure times used to create this image set – a tenth of a second – were too short for the camera to detect Pluto’s four much smaller and fainter moons.

Since it was discovered in 1930, Pluto has remained an enigma. It orbits our sun more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) from Earth, and researchers have struggled to discern any details about its surface. These latest New Horizons images allow the mission science team to detect clear differences in brightness across Pluto’s surface as it rotates.

“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”

The images the spacecraft returns will dramatically improve as New Horizons speeds closer to its July rendezvous with Pluto.

“We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer,” said Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

From a NASA news release.