Space Sunday: see Pluto’s mountains and the size of the Solar System

Back lit by the sun: Pluto's hazy atmosphere seen from just 18,000km (11,000 miles) and 15 minutes are the point of closest approach to the planet by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14th, 2015. To the upper right of the planet can be seen the icy expanse of "Sputnik Planum", bordered below and to the left by tall mountains, and to the right by what appears to be glacial outflows. Image courtesy of NASA / JHU / APL,
Backlit by the Sun: Pluto’s hazy atmosphere seen from just 18,000km (11,000 miles) and 15 minutes are the point of closest approach to the planet by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14th, 2015. To the upper right of the planet can be seen the icy expanse of “Sputnik Planum”, bordered below and to the left by tall mountains, and to the right by what appears to be glacial inflows. Image: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI (click for full size)

Just when you thought images of Pluto returned by the New Horizons spacecraft could get any more awe-inspiring, NASA / JHU  APL release a set of raw images that are utterly stunning.

The images come from the wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on the space craft and were captured just 15 minutes after the vehicle reached is point of closest approach to the little world, and thus from a distance of just 18,000 km (11,000 miles) from Pluto.

The stunning vistas presented in the image show the ice plains of “Sputnik Planum” bordered to the left and from below by Pluto’s huge mountain ranges, informally named Hillary and Norgay, Montes after the first partnership to successful reach the summit of Mt. Everest here on Earth. All of this is dramatically backlit by sunlight reflected through Pluto’s hazy atmosphere to create a wonderful scene said to be reminiscent of views of the Antarctic viewed from space or very high altitude.

A closer view: In this image just 380 km (230 miles) across, shows "Sputnik Planum" bordered to the west by towering mountains reaching up to 3,500 metres (11,000 ft) in altitude. In the foreground sit the informally-named Norgay Montes, and on the skyline to the top and left of the image, the Hilary Montes
A closer view: in this image just 380 km (230 miles) across, shows “Sputnik Planum” bordered to the west by towering mountains reaching up to 3,500 metres (11,000 ft) in altitude. In the foreground sit the informally named Norgay Montes, and on the skyline to the top and left of the image, the Hillary Montes. Image: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI (click for full size)

However, the images aren’t just notable for the panoramic beauty; they actually reveal a lot about what is happening in the Plutoian atmosphere. Because of the back lighting from the Sun, the high-resolution MVIC has revealed just how complex Pluto’s atmosphere is, comprising multiple layers of nitrogen and other gases rising to around 100 km (60 mi) above Pluto’s surface (and visible as a banding in the images above).

“In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day-to-day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth,” said Will Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

What is also exciting the science team is evidence within the images for Pluto having a complex “hydrological” cycle which seems to be comparable in some ways to that found on Earth – only on Pluto, it involves nitrogen ice, rather than water ice.

When compared with images captured as New Horizons approached Pluto, the MVIC images further suggest that the regions eastward of “Sputnik Planum” appear to have been encroached over time by ices and material possibly evaporated from the surface of “Sputnik Planum” to be deposited on the higher lands as a new ice blanket, which in turn appears to have formed glacial formations flowing back into “Sputnik Planum”.

Glacial flow on Pluto: deposits of frozen nitrogen which have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 630 km (390 mi) wide image has formed glacial flows leading from the uplands beck into "Sputnik Planum" draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the icy plain through the valley system indicated by the red arrows (the valleys average between 3 and 8 km (2 and 5 mi) in width). In the meantime, the ice of the plain appears to be flowing outwards and towards the uplands, as indicated by the blue arrows. Image: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.
Glacial flow on Pluto: deposits of frozen nitrogen which have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 630 km (390 mi) wide image has formed glacial flows leading from the uplands beck into “Sputnik Planum” draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the icy plain through the valley system indicated by the red arrows (the valleys average between 3 and 8 km (2 and 5 mi) in width). In the meantime, the ice of the plain appears to be flowing outwards and towards the uplands, as indicated by the blue arrows. Image: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI (click for full size)

“We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system,” said Alan Howard, a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.”

To Scale: The Solar System

We’re all familiar with the idea that the solar system is so vast, that it is almost impossible to show the Sun and the major planets proportional to one another and at a scale where all the later are both visible and have orbits which can be adequately encompassed in an easily viewable space.

1972: The Blue Marble (click to enlarge)

Obviously, some models do exist; the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA, for example, has a walk that allows visitors to travel from the sun and by each of the planets, but it’s not always easy to clearly grasp the sheer scale of things. The same goes for digital models (and a few have been built within virtual worlds like Second Life).

With this issue of scale and proportion in mind, Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh set out to produce a scale model of the solar system that might help people understand just how vast our planetary back yard is when looked at on a human scale.

They started with a blue marble to represent the Earth, echoing the famous photograph taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of Apollo 17 en route to the Moon and which NASA dubbed the Blue Marble.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: see Pluto’s mountains and the size of the Solar System”

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Looking into Valley of Fear and through the eyes of a superhero

It’s time to kick-off another week of fabulous story-telling in voice, brought to our virtual lives by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s Second Life home at Bradley University, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, September 20th 13:30: Tea time at Baker Street

The Valley of Fear, The Strand Magazine, 1915. Illustration by Frank Wiles
The Valley of Fear, The Strand Magazine, 1915. Illustration by Frank Wiles

“I am inclined to think—” said I.

“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.

I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “you are a little trying at times.”

He was too much absorbed with his own thoughts to give any immediate answer to my remonstrance. He leaned upon his hand, with his untasted breakfast before him, and he stared at the slip of paper which he had just drawn from its envelope. Then he took the envelope itself, held it up to the light, and very carefully studied both the exterior and the flap.

“It is Porlock’s writing,” said he thoughtfully. “I can hardly doubt that it is Porlock’s writing, though I have seen it only twice before. The Greek e with the peculiar top flourish is distinctive. But if it is Porlock, then it must be something of the very first importance.”

He was speaking to himself rather than to me; but my vexation disappeared in the interest which the words awakened.

“Who then is Porlock?” I asked.

“Porlock, Watson, is a nom-de-plume, a mere identification mark; but behind it lies a shifty and evasive personality. In a former letter he frankly informed me that the name was not his own, and defied me ever to trace him among the teeming millions of this great city. Porlock is important, not for himself, but for the great man with whom he is in touch. Picture to yourself the pilot fish with the shark, the jackal with the lion—anything that is insignificant in companionship with what is formidable: not only formidable, Watson, but sinister—in the highest degree sinister. That is where he comes within my purview. You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?”

So opens The Valley of Fear, which first appeared in serial form within the pages of The Strand Magazine between 1914 and 1915, before being republished as a full length novel. Set prior to the events of Holmes’ apparent death in The Final Problem, the story serves to explore more sinister activities undertaken as the behest of that criminal mastermind, Professor Moriarty.

Join Caledonia Skytower and Kayden Oconnell as they commence a 6-part reading of what became the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel.

Monday September 21st, 19:00: Solis

solisGyro Muggins concludes Alfred Angelo Attanasio’s 1994 thought-provoking novel Solis.

What happens when you gamble your own future on the far future, and opt to have your head and brain frozen in the hope that one day, perhaps centuries to come, it – you can be revived?

That’s exactly what Charles Otis decided to do – only things don’t turn out so well. Found discarded but still in a cryonic state, his brain is purchased sans head and installed in a deep space ore carrier as its primary processor.

Until, that is, he is discovered and rescued by those sympathetic to his plight. And so the story takes a turn to matters of the legal status of a disembodied brain, restored for a specific purpose and of unknown origin; paid for, and – at least they would have it – owned by the corporation that purchased the brain, and which has little interest in any past identity the brain might have had.

Tuesday September 22nd,19:00 The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid

Thunderbolt KidKayden Oconnell reads from Bill Bryson’s memoirs of his childhood, growing up in Iowa in the 1950s. However, given this is Bill Bryson, these are no ordinary memoirs.

Born into an era when “automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you”, the young Bryson held a  daydream typical of so many American youngsters of the time: to be a superhero.

For Bryson, this meant spending time wearing a  football jersey emblazoned with a lightning bolt together with a towel for a cape whilst spending time righting imaginary wrongs, overcoming evil-doers, travelling faster than a speeding bullet and leaping tall buildings in a single bound and being known as The Thunderbolt Kid.

And it is through the eyes of this childhood alter ego that Bryson allows us to witness his home and family life as he grew up in 1950s Des Moines.

Wednesday September 23rd 19:00: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street

PenderwicksCaledonia Skytower concludes Jeanne Birdsall’s 2014 volume about the Penderwick family, the second in the series.

When the four Penderwick sisters learn that, encouraged by his sister-in-law and the wishes of their late mother, their father is going to start meeting other women, they fear the worst, and so enact the Save Daddy Plan. They set their Dad up with dates he won’t get on with, while he, also not overly convinced of things, goes out on pretend dates.

However, things start to change as the sisters meet and get to know Ben from next door, and his mum, Iantha. Added to the mix the adventures and challenges each of the four sisters face, and it turns out to be quite a series of events and changes for the Penderwicks – one of them very much turning out for the best.

Thursday, September 24th, 19:00 The Banshee’s Comb

With Shandon Loring.

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Please check with the Seanchai Library SL’s blog for updates and for additions or changes to the week’s schedule. The featured charity for August / September is Water for People, “When one person or one family has clean, accessible water, their lives are changed. But when entire regions and countries have water, the world is changed.”

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