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.

Taking the marble’s diameter as a basis meant that the Sun would be around 1.5 metres (2.4 ft) across, which immediately brought up a problem: to build a correctly scaled model of just the eight major planets of the solar system, they’d need a flat area of land 11.2 km (7 miles) across.

Cue a dry lake bed in Nevada, and a remarkable film which also celebrates the era of Apollo.

And in case you’re wondering what this means for the size of our galaxy, consider two comments by “Walter Boxhead” following the video:

  • At the same scale, the Voyager 1 space craft, the furthest human-made vehicle from Earth, would be 23 km (14.4 miles) away from the balloon representing the Sun.
  • Also at this scale, the Sun’s nearest stellar neighbour would be around 47,000km (29,375 miles) away – just over that at which the iconic Blue Marble photo was taken in 1972.

On Display: the Soviet Space Programme

Those of us in the UK into space exploration can enjoy a unique insight into Russia’s Soviet-era space endeavours including a glimpse of the work of the “grandfather of rocketry”, Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, via a new exhibition being hosted by London’s Science Museum.

The most complete example of a Soviet-era LK Lunar Lander, currently on display at the Science Museum in London

The most complete example of a Soviet-era LK Lunar Lander, currently on display at the Science Museum in London. This vehicle was used for cosmonaut training. Just visible to the right of the picture is the “bathtub” body of a Russian Lunokhod moon rover the Soviets eventually sent to the Moon instead of human crews. Image: the Science Museum via Collect Space

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, which opened on Friday, September 18th and runs through until March 13th, 2016, features 150 Soviet-era spacecraft, spacesuits and other artifacts, together with original drawings dating from 1933 by Tsiolkovsky depicting living and working in a microgravity environment when orbiting the Earth.

In particular, the exhibit includes the most complete example of a Soviet crewed lunar lander in existence, and the capsule which carried the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova and returned her safely to Earth.

Tereshkova, who was also technically the first civilian to fly in space, her position and rank in the Soviet Air force being purely honorary, was present at the opening of the exhibition, as was the world’s first space-walker, Alexey Leonov.

Cosmonaut is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that has taken years of dedication and skill to make a reality,” Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum said during the opening of the exhibition. “The Russian space programme is one of the great intellectual, scientific and engineering successes of the 20th century, and I am thrilled that we have been able to bring together such an outstanding collection of Russian space artifacts to celebrate these achievements.”

Tereshkova's Vostok 6 capsule in which she spent 3 days in orbit in June 1963, marking her as the first woman and technically the first civilian to fly in space

Tereshkova’s Vostok 6 capsule in which she spent 3 days in orbit in June 1963, marking her as the first woman and technically the first civilian to fly in space. Around the capsule can be seen various clothing items worn by Soviet cosmonauts and other artifacts. Image: the Science Museum via Collect Space.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is the culmination of partnership spanning several years between the Science Museum in South Kensington, London, the Russian State Museum and Exhibition Centre Rosizo in Moscow, and Russia’s Federal Space Agency Roscosmos.

First Crewed flight for NASA’s Orion My Slip

NASA has indicated that the first crewed flight of the Orion space vehicle may not take place until 2023.

The announcement was made as the Orion’s development programme achieved a milestone known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) on September 16th, 2015. This review, one of several which have taken place / will occur during both the vehicle’s development and that of its associated Space launch System (SLS) rocket launcher, found that there is a 70-percent chance Orion will be ready for its first crewed mission, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), no later than April 2023.

The first crewed mission of the Orion spece vheicle (seen here mated to is European-built service Module) may not now take place until April 2023

The first crewed mission of the Orion space vehicle (seen here mated to is European-built service Module) may not now take place until April 2023

The findings do not indicate there are any issues with the development programme for the vehicle, which is designed to fly crews well beyond Earth’s orbit, such as back to the Moon and, as part of a large spacecraft, to Mars. Rather, it reflects concern that there may yet be “unknowns” which might arise in the future which serve to delay the flight.

Nevertheless, despite the potential of an 18-month delay when compared with the original target launch period of August 2021, the Orion development team are still pushing forward with an “aggressive” programme to get the vehicle ready for its first crewed mission in 2021 even while acknowledging the chances of hitting the target are low. The potential slippage in no way impacts on the next planned launch of Orion, designated EM-1, which will see an uncrewed version of the vehicle launched atop the new SLS rocket in the autumn of 2018.

SHEE: The Self-building Habitat

A team of engineers and designers from five European countries have spent the last few years working on unique approach to building living space on Mars and / or the Moon, and which could have major implications for things like disaster relief here on Earth.

The Self-deployable Habitat for Extreme Environments (SHEE) project is researching the means to provide habitat spaces which literally “build themselves” and could provide expanding living accommodation on a Lunar or Mars mission without the need for “on-site” construction or the bulky addition of having to fly the modules in a “pre-built” state.

An artist's impression of two connected SHEE modules on Mars, complete with rear-entry EVA suits "docked" against the unit, eliminating the need for complex airlock systems

An artist’s impression of two connected SHEE modules on Mars, complete with rear-entry EVA suits “docked” against the unit, eliminating the need for complex airlock systems. Image: SHEE

The basic idea behind SHEE came out of a research idea initiated by architect Ondrej Doule, who saw the construction of any large-scale habitat elements suitable for support long-stay crews on either the Moon or Mars as potentially one of the most risk-intensive elements in trying to establish a long-term presence in either location. Some  2.3 million ( US $2.6 million) has been awarded in funding for the project to date, which has been used to finance a 36-month initial programme to develop and prototype SHEE modules through until December 2015.

The habitat is a hybrid structure composed of inflatable, rigid and robotic components. It is divided into five functional areas, which in the default unit comprise entrance ports, work areas, private crew quarters, a kitchen and a toilet. However, individual units could be equipped to accommodate specific tasks and activities, allowing a number of the units to be interconnected to produce a small base camp.

The SHEE prototype showing the core rectangular element and the 6 "rotating" elements deployed

The SHEE prototype showing the core rectangular element and the 6 “rotating” elements deployed. Image SHEE

The prototype system utilises a rigid structure comprising a rectangular core element together with six semi-circular sections, some of which are pre-furnished and which are stored within the core element during flight / pre-deployment, and then which rotate out from the core to form the two circular bulges on either side, as shown in this SHEE video.

Currently, the prototype is undergoing testing at COMEX, France. However, there are plans to move it to the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. Once there, it will undergo a series of intensive tests without humans “in the loop”, to verify whether the unit can function as expected for up to 14 days in an extreme environment. A deployment to a Mars analogue region around the Rio Tinto river in  Andalucia, Spain, where it will be used in human / robotic interaction tests.

SHEE could also provide significant disaster relief capabilities on Earth, presenting shelter and accommodation for those affected by a disaster

SHEE could also provide significant disaster relief capabilities on Earth, presenting shelter and accommodation for those affected by a disaster. Image: SHEE

A more Earthly use for the system might be in disaster relief, where its compact size and easy deployment could be used to quickly present those suffering under a natural or other disaster with shelter and accommodation. In addition, the units could be used for a range of research opportunities in hard-to-access locations on Earth and with minimal ecological impact.

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