Space Monday: beautiful Pluto, icy Enceladus, and jetting into space

new-horizonIn September I reported on images captured by the New Horizons space probe of the night side of Pluto, backlit by the distant Sun. In a follow-up to those images, the New Horizons team has released stunning high-resolution images captured by the probe shortly after passing the point of closest approach to Pluto on July 14th, 2015.

The images were captured from a distance of just 18,000 km (11,000 miles) from Pluto using the Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), part of New Horizon’s Ralph suite of instruments, which were pieced together to form a magnificent view of Pluto with a resolution of some 700 metres per pixel.

The mosaic of images shows the rich complexity of both Pluto’s surface features and its atmosphere, the enhanced images clearly bringing the bands of haze in the latter into sharp relief.

An enhanced image of Pluto's night side, composed of images captured by the MVIC instrument on New Horizons on July 14th, 2015. As Pluto is "tipped over" on its axis by 120 degrees, the planet's north pole is to the right and south pole to the left

An enhanced image of Pluto’s night side, composed of images captured by the MVIC instrument on New Horizons on July 14th, 2015. As Pluto is “tipped over” on its axis by 120 degrees, the planet’s north pole is to the right and south pole to the left (image: NASA/JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The clearest detail of Pluto’s surface can be seen to the right, which because the planet’s axis is tilted by 120-degrees, is the north polar region. The sheer ruggedness of the terrain can be seen here, some of the pitted hills almost looking like clouds above a distant landscape. However, the left side, and the south pole isn’t entirely without interest: caught by the glow of sunlight refracted by Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere, the rugged nature of the little world’s chaotic surface can also be seen.

Subject to enhancement, a portion of the images capturing the northern regions of Pluto  reveal even more detail, particularly within the complex layering of Pluto’s atmosphere, where the enhancements reveal it to be made up of around a dozen layers, far more than had been thought during New Horizon’s final approach to Pluto in late June. These layers are made up of tholins, soot-like organic compounds created as a result of ultraviolet radiation from the sun interacting with the upper layers of Pluto’s atmosphere. These particles, undergoing some chemical changes as they drift back down through the various layers, eventually precipitate down onto Pluto’s surface, staining it red.

An enhanced image of Pluto north polar region revealing an incredibly complex surface of hills and valleys, ice features and high mountains, while above can be seen an enhanced view of the complex atmospheric banding

An enhanced image of Pluto north polar region revealing an incredibly complex surface of hills and valleys, ice features and high mountains, while above can be seen an enhanced view of the complex atmospheric banding (image: NASA/JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Cassini’s Enceladus Encounter

Cassini, NASA’s deep space probe exploring Saturn and his retinue of moons as a part of the Cassini-Huygens mission, is approaching the end of its 20-year mission. Launched in 1997, and following a 7-years transit to Saturn, Cassini has been studying the system in great detail, and delivered a tiny European lander vehicle, Huygens, to the surface of Titan, the largest moon in the solar system, and one with its own rich atmosphere, and standing bodies of liquid on its surface.

With fuel reserves set to expire in late 2017, Cassini will be ordered to fly into Saturn’s own dense atmosphere before it does so, where it will burn-up. In the meantime, however, the vehicle continues to return a marvellous wealth of data about the Saturn system, including several studies of another of the giant planet’s remarkable moons, Enceladus.

Enceladus revealed: captured on October 28th, this image reveals the icy beauty of encedaus as Cassini closes for its penultimate, and closest, approach to this tiny Moon with its hidden ocean

Enceladus revealed: captured on October 28th, this image reveals the icy beauty of the moon as Cassini closes for its penultimate, and closest, approach (image: NASA/JPL / Space Science Institute)

Like Jupiter’s moon Europa, Enceladus is a domain of ice, under which likely sits an ocean of liquid water. Shortly after arriving in orbit around Saturn, Cassini made the first of numerous flybys of the little Moon, which is just 500 km (310 mi) across, and detected the presence of a very thin atmosphere primarily made up of water vapour. In particular, the craft observed geysers erupting from the south pole, spewing water vapour, ice particles and other material into space, some of which likely contributes to Saturn’s “E” ring.

At the end of October 2015, Cassini made its penultimate flyby of Enceladus, passing over the Moon at an altitude of just 48 km (30 mi) and at a speed of some 30,000 kph (19,000 mph), diving through another of the geyser plumes in the process to measure the composition of gas and ice particles launched from the underground ocean.

A stunning images taken by Cassini following the October flyby reveals a crescent Enceladus floating above Saturn's magnificent rings

A stunning images taken by Cassini following the October flyby reveals a crescent Enceladus floating above Saturn’s magnificent rings (image: NASA/JPL / Space Science Institute)

In particular, the Cassini science team will be analysing the data returned by Cassini following the flyby to see if the sensors found any evidence of molecular hydrogen in the plumes. Doing so would help verify suspected hydrothermal activity is taking place on the floor of Enceladus’ ice-shrouded ocean which could give rise to hot environments rich in mineral and chemical deposits suitable for the development of microbial life, just as deep-ocean thermal vents here on Earth provide life-sustaining environments.

Cassini will make one more return to Enceladus on December 19th, but will pass further from the little Moon as its orbit gradually swings it around Saturn for a further and final set of encounters with giant Titan, before finally moving inwards to pass between Saturn and its rings for the first time to study Saturn’s atmosphere in detail as the mission draws to a close in 2017.

Dawn Descends Over Ceres

On October 23rd, the NASA / ESA joint mission to explore two of the solar system’s three “protoplanets” located in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, commenced manoeuvres to lower itself to is final orbit around Ceres.

The Dawn spacecraft, which arrived at Ceres in March 2015, after a 2.5 year transit flight from Vesta, its first destination, fired its ion engine to start reducing its orbit from 1,450 kilometres (915 miles) to just 380 km (235 mi), a manoeuvre which should see the vehicle spiral gently downwards to arrive in its new orbit in mid-December. At that time, Dawn will commence a final mapping and data-gathering mission, providing images with a resolution of 35 metres (120 ft) per pixel.

Occator crater and its brights spots images from directly overhead and a distance of 1,470 km (915 miles) by the Dawn space vehicle

Occator crater and its bright spots images from directly overhead and a distance of 1,450 km (915 miles) by the Dawn space vehicle (image: NASA / JPL / DLR)

It is hoped that this final science orbit will offer definitive data on precisely what is giving rise to a series of odd bright spots within the crater Occator on Ceres, and which appear to be related to what seems to be a small and very localised trace atmosphere within the crater. Current thinking is the bright markings are salt or ice water deposits which are being out-gassed from Ceres’ interior.

Britain’s Spaceplane Gets £80 million Investment

SABRE is the name of a radical “air-breathing” hybrid engine which has been in development by  a small British company called Reaction Engines Limited (REL) since the late 1990s. The aim is to reduce the amount of on-board oxidiser required in the rocket combustion process by allowing the engine to draw on the air around it during the initial ascent through the denser part of the Earth’s atmosphere, much like a regular jet engine uses the air around it. Only when the air becomes too thin to support combustion does the rocket engine switch over to its on-board supplies of liquid oxygen to burn with its liquid hydrogen fuel.

Ultimately, REL hope to use the SABRE engine in a single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicle called Skylon, a fully reusable space launch vehicle, capable of operating from and to a conventional runway just like an aeroplane, and carrying up to tonnes into low Earth orbit.  However, the SABRE engine potentially has a wide range of applications, including a purely “air-breathing” variant (called Scimitar) which could be used to power aircraft within Earth’s atmosphere at speeds close to five times that of sound.

REL propose using the SABRE engine in their Skylon spaceplane capable of lifting up to 15 tonnes (cargo or 24 passengers) into orbit. however, the engine has many potential uses, hence the interest from BASE Systems and the UK government (image: REL)

REL propose using the SABRE engine in their Skylon spaceplane capable of lifting up to 15 tonnes (cargo or 24 passengers) into orbit. however, the engine has many potential uses, hence the interest from BASE Systems and the UK government (image: REL)

On Monday, November 2nd, REL announced that BAE Systems Ltd is to invest some £20.6 million (US $31.8 million) in REL in return for a 20% stake in the company, while the UK government has awarded a further £60 million (US $92.8 million). Together with recent funding from the EU, REL has now raised some £95 million (US $146.6 million)  to further develop SABRE.

Skulls in the Sky

Halloween 2015 brought with it a creepy-looking visitor which looked down on Earth as many across the world took to marking All Hallows Eve on Saturday, October 31st.

The visitor in question was asteroid 2015 TB145, a lump of rock around 600 metres (1,968 feet) across. Tumbling through space, it passed by the Earth at a distance of roughly 480,000 km (300,000 miles) – slightly further from us than the orbit of the Moon,  at a speed of some 126,000 kph (78,293 mph).

Such Earth-passing asteroids are not rare, although this one was only identified on October 10th, 2015. It well be the last close passage to Earth by a very large asteroid until 2027, and its size offered scientists a unique opportunity to image it using radar.

Asteroid 2015 TB145 in an eerily skull-lik image captured by the Are

Asteroid 2015 TB145 in an eerily skull-like image captured by the Arecibo Observatory on Friday, October 30th, 2015.

On Friday, October 30th, the The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico used radar mapping to capture an image of the asteroid in which it looks like a gigantic skull.  It was all an optical illusion of course, the combined result of the radio reflections from the asteroid giving rise to the grey shaded image and the effect of pareidolia, in which the human brain perceives shapes and patterns that aren’t really there; as the asteroid tumbled through space, the similarities to a human skull were quickly lost as the radar reflections changed.

Nevertheless, it was fittingly spooky for Halloween!

Discover Gale Crater

I’ve written extensively about NASA’s Curiosity rover and its explorations within Gale Crater on Mars since its arrival there in August 2012. Now NASA and the Los Angeles Times have combined to provide a virtual reality exploration of Gale Crater, which examines some of the principal features to be found there, traces the rover’s route from crater floor and up the flank of “Mount Sharp” and which allows visitors to fly over the crater or take a guided tour using simple keyboard controls.

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