Tagged: New Horizons

NASA’s New Horizons probe just woke back up

The last we heard of NASA’s New Horizons probe was when NASA released a set of photos taken at the farthest point any spacecraft has ever captured an image (3.79 billion miles, in case you were wondering), but things have been quiet for a number of months. That’s because the probe had been placed in a hibernation mode to conserve energy as it travels towards the edge of the Solar System.

Now, after roughly six months of doing nothing but occasionally checking in with its handlers here on Earth, New Horizons is awake again, and it’s preparing to wow us with some brand new photos.

The probe is currently cruising near the Kuiper Belt, which is the massive ring of various-sized objects that orbits the Sun at an even greater distance than Neptune and near Pluto. Some of the rocky bodies in the Kuiper Belt (called KBOs, or Kuiper Belt Objects) are massive, the largest being Pluto itself, but there are also asteroids and comets of varying sizes. One particularly interesting KBO is called Ultima Thule, and that’s NASA’s next target for the New Horizons camera.

“Our team is already deep into planning and simulations of our upcoming flyby of Ultima Thule and excited that New Horizons is now back in an active state to ready the bird for flyby operations, which will begin in late August,” Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Principal Investigator for the mission, said in a statement.

But before NASA can tell the aging probe to begin snapping it needs to go through a hole laundry list of checkups. Scientists will send memory updates to the spacecraft and gather data about how its systems are performing. Once that is complete they will prepare for the first far-off observations of Ultima Thule so they can better navigate towards it in anticipation of an up-close-and-personal visit.

New Horizons might be over a decade old, but it still has a lot of work left to do. The spacecraft is expected to remain up and running through 2020 in order to deliver as much scientific data about Ultima Thule and other Kuiper Belt objects as possible. Is power source will eventually be depleted sometime after 2026.

NASA spacecraft captures evidence of frozen methane dunes on Pluto

Pluto might not be an official planet anymore but that doesn’t mean the frozen world is any less interesting from a scientific perspective. The dwarf planet hangs out at the far reaches of the Solar System and it’s an incredibly chilly place to be. In fact, recent research has suggested that Pluto might be actually be the result of a collection of a billion or so frigid comets that crashed into each other, and a new scientific paper is helping to paint a more detailed picture of its remarkable surface features.

The work, which was published in Science, uses photographs captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft which flew past Pluto way back in 2015. In the images, scientists have discovered evidence of what appears to be sandy dunes on the surface. Well, it’s not actually sand at all.

The photos show an undeniably Earth-like landscape with mountainous terrain bordered by what appears to be a vast desert. Scientists already know that much of Pluto is actually frozen gasses forming solid material. The researchers write that this “sand” as we see it isn’t tiny bits of rocky material like we’re used to here on Earth, but actually frozen methane particles that have gathered into dune-like shapes.

“The methane grains could have been lofted into the atmosphere by the melting of surrounding nitrogen ice or blown down from nearby mountains,” the researchers explain. “Understanding how dunes form under Pluto conditions will help with interpreting similar features found elsewhere in the solar system.”

This is a surprising finding for a number of reasons, but the most important takeaway is that the surface conditions of the planet might not be what scientists had long assumed. With an incredibly thin atmosphere, features like dunes that we typically associate with windy conditions shouldn’t really be possible. But you can’t argue with a photo, so scientists are working on coming up with other explanations.

“The surface of Pluto is more geologically diverse and dynamic than had been expected,” the paper reads. “But the role of its tenuous atmosphere in shaping the landscape remains unclear.”

NASA releases images captured at a record-breaking 3.79 billion miles from Earth

NASA has a whole lot of fancy image-gathering hardware on Earth and in space, and we’ve seen countless of stunning snapshots taken from here on Earth as well as nearby planets like Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The pictures are often gorgeously detailed eye candy, but the latest batch of images from the space agency is remarkable for an entirely different reason. Captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, the images were gathered at a greatest distance from Earth than any in the history of mankind.

So, just how far is “the farthest ever”? Right around 3.79 billion miles. Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. There are three images in total, each focusing on a different distant object. The subjects include the ‘Wishing Well’ star cluster as well as two large objects in the Kuiper Belt which have never been observed from such a distance before.

“New Horizons has long been a mission of firsts — first to explore Pluto, first to explore the Kuiper Belt, fastest spacecraft ever launched,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, notes in a statement. “And now, we’ve been able to make images farther from Earth than any spacecraft in history.”

The images, as seen above (Kuiper Belt objects) and below (Wishing Well cluster), are somewhat grainy and not the most detailed we’ve seen from NASA, but that doesn’t make the feat any less remarkable.

New Horizons originally launched way back in early 2006, and it the spacecraft has made close passes of a number of planets during its more than a decade of cruising through our Solar System. Its primary mission was set to last roughly 10 years, but was extended once it became clear that the spacecraft was healthy enough to continue sending back observations for a while longer.

Its new extended mission will wrap up in early 2021 after it performs a number of flybys of large objects in the Kuiper Belt that scientists want to learn more about. However, that might not be the last we hear from New Horizons, as its power source could continue to provide life into 2026 and beyond. If it makes it that long, NASA plans to use the spacecraft to study the outer heliosphere.