Final Countdown to Last Outpost in our Solar System

Posted: Jul 10, 2015 02:28 am EDT

(Tina Sjogren) We’re on final approach for a rendezvous with the last planet in our solar system.


In a magnificent display of human intelligence directing machine over space distances that took the probe nearly a decade to cover: New Horizons is back on track since a software pile-up caused the spacecraft to shutdown mains and go into safe-mode while waiting for instructions from Earth.


Sitting in the solar system's farthest known planetary outpost,  Pluto, a dwarf planet with 5 moons is located in the Kuiper belt, believed to host at least one trillion resource-studded comets.


Target for New Horizon's mission: Pluto is small, 2,302 km in diameter (Madrid to Oslo) and red like Mars but probably by hydrocarbon derivates (Mars is stained by plain old iron oxide rust). Just guessing at this point, we think Pluto is made out of mostly rock and water ice, with nitrogen ices and solid methane, ethane, and carbon monoxide thrown in.


The biggest enigma are several dark spots, evenly spaced along the equator, showing up like warts on Pluto's face. 9 years on the road already, New Horizon will get its closest flyby on Tuesday,  July 14.




Compare Pluto to another (there are five) dwarf planet: Ceres, that got its first flyby this spring by a different space-probe, Dawn, nearly 8 years down the road.


In comparison to Pluto, Ceres sits in the asteroid belt, another potential mining-field but much closer to us, between Mars and Jupiter.


This little guy (at 963 kilometers it is half the size of Pluto), Ceres is actually the largest object in the asteroid belt. It has no moons and is made out of water ice, carbonates (hello club soda) and clays in opposite to Pluto's rock.


Where Pluto has dark blots, Ceres showed white spots in the first flyby. We still don’t know what they are, we’re guessing water ice or salt.


Another discovery was a striped, pyramid shaped solitary peak the size of Mont Blanc (4,8 km/16’ft). Considering the planet’s small size (little more than SF to Portland) the mountain should stand out on Ceres (Oregon’s highest peak is Mount Hood, 11’ft). 


The marbled Mount Ceres could be similar to Pingos on earth (groundwater mounds in Arctic areas) some scientists believe, and the bright stripes may be made out of the same stuff as Cere's enigmatic white spots.


In current orbit 2,700 miles above surface, Dawn will descend to 900 miles in August to try and find out.  Closest orbit around Ceres is planned for December 2015, at a distance of 200 miles (375 km). 


Universe awash in water


All in all, there may be a drought in California but the Universe is awash with water.

We’re finding the tell tale signs everywhere - in interstellar clouds, on asteroids, comets, and planets - in the forms of ice and/or in giant liquid subsurface oceans; some fresh, some carbonated, some salty even. By comparison to our increasingly depleted world; resources are everywhere out there.




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Dark spots show on Pluto in July 3 flyby pic. We should get a better peek on Tuesday.
courtesy NASA, SOURCE
Timing conflict involving a large command load while trying to compress previous science data; early this week New Horizons went into emergency mode and sent binary SOS to Earth. All is now well for Tuesday's closeup.
courtesy NASA, SOURCE
White spots on Ceres
courtesy NASA, SOURCE
Also Dawn suffered a glitch in the past week and is currently holding in Ceres orbit.
courtesy JPL, SOURCE

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