Thursday, May 28, 2015

New Horizons Spacecraft Closing in on Pluto

These images show Pluto in the latest series of New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) photos, taken May 8-12, 2015, compared to LORRI images taken one month earlier. In the month between these image sets, New Horizons' distance to Pluto decreased from 68 million miles (110 million kilometers) to 47 million miles (75 million kilometers), as the spacecraft speeds toward a close encounter with the Pluto system in mid-July. Credit: NASA

What a difference 20 million miles makes! Images of Pluto from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft are growing in scale as the spacecraft approaches its mysterious target. The new images, taken May 8-12 using a powerful telescopic camera and downlinked last week, reveal more detail about Pluto's complex and high-contrast surface. The images were taken from just under 50 million miles (77 million kilometers) away, using the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons. Because New Horizons was approximately 20 million miles closer to Pluto in mid-May than in mid-April, the new images contain about twice as many pixels on the object as images made in mid-April.

A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed pictures beamed back to Earth. In the April images, New Horizons scientists determined that Pluto has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap. The newer imagery released here shows finer details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce spurious details, so the finest details in these images will need confirmation from images to be made from closer range in coming weeks.

"These new images show us that Pluto's differing faces are each distinct; likely hinting at what may be very complex surface geology or variations in surface composition from place to place," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "These images also continue to support the hypothesis that Pluto has a polar cap whose extent varies with longitude; we'll be able to make a definitive determination of the polar bright region's iciness when we get compositional spectroscopy of that region in July."

The images New Horizons returns will dramatically improve in coming weeks as the spacecraft speeds closer to its July 14 encounter with the Pluto system, covering about 750,000 miles per day.

"By late June the image resolution will be four times better than the images made May 8-12, and by the time of closest approach, we expect to obtain images with more than 5,000 times the current resolution," said Hal Weaver, the mission's project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.

New Horizons team has also analyzed the first set of hazard-search images of the Pluto system taken by the approaching spacecraft itself – and so far, all looks clear for the spacecraft’s safe passage.

The observations were made May 11-12 from a range of 47 million miles (76 million kilometers) using LORRI. For these observations, LORRI was instructed to take 144 10-second exposures, designed to allow a highly sensitive search for faint satellites, rings or dust sheets in the system. The mission team is looking carefully for any indications of dust or debris that might threaten New Horizons before the spacecraft’s flight through the Pluto system on July 14; a particle as small as a grain of rice could be fatal.

This image shows the results of the New Horizons team’s first search for potentially hazardous material around Pluto, conducted May 11-12, 2015, from a range of 47 million miles (76 million kilometers). The image combines 48 10-second exposures, taken with the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), to offer the most sensitive view yet of the Pluto system.  The left panel is a combination of the original images before any processing. The combined glare of Pluto and its large moon Charon in the center of the field, along with the thousands of background stars, overwhelm any faint moons or rings that might pose a threat to the New Horizons spacecraft.  The central panel is the same image after extensive processing to remove Pluto and Charon’s glare and most of the background stars, revealing Pluto’s four small moons — Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra — as points of light. The right panel overlays the orbits and locations of all five moons, including Charon. Remaining unlabeled spots and blemishes in the processed image are imperfectly removed stars, including variable stars which appear as bright or dark dots. The faint grid pattern is an artifact of the image processing. Celestial north is up in these images. Credit: NASA
This image shows the results of the New Horizons team’s first search for potentially hazardous material around Pluto, conducted May 11-12, 2015, from a range of 47 million miles (76 million kilometers). The image combines 48 10-second exposures, taken with the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), to offer the most sensitive view yet of the Pluto system. The left panel is a combination of the original images before any processing. The combined glare of Pluto and its large moon Charon in the center of the field, along with the thousands of background stars, overwhelm any faint moons or rings that might pose a threat to the New Horizons spacecraft. The central panel is the same image after extensive processing to remove Pluto and Charon’s glare and most of the background stars, revealing Pluto’s four small moons — Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra — as points of light. The right panel overlays the orbits and locations of all five moons, including Charon. Remaining unlabeled spots and blemishes in the processed image are imperfectly removed stars, including variable stars which appear as bright or dark dots. The faint grid pattern is an artifact of the image processing. Celestial north is up in these images. Credit: NASA

The observations, downlinked to Earth May 12-15 and processed and analyzed May 12-18, detected Pluto and all five of its known moons, but no rings, new moons, or hazards of any kind. The New Horizons hazard detection team, led by John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, determined that small satellites with about half the brightness of Pluto’s faintest known moon, Styx, could have been detected at this range. Any undiscovered moons outside the orbit of Pluto’s largest and closest moon, Charon, are thus likely smaller than 3-10 miles (5-15 kilometers) in diameter. If any undiscovered rings are present around Pluto outside Charon’s orbit, they must be very faint or narrow – less than 1,000 miles wide or reflecting less than one 5-millionth of the incoming sunlight.

The next hazard-search images will be taken May 29-30, and should have about twice the sensitivity of the first batch. The team expects to complete a thorough analysis of the data and report on its results by June 12. The New Horizons team has until July 4 to divert the spacecraft to one of three alternate routes if any dangers are found.

New Horizons is nearly 2.95 billion miles from home, speeding toward Pluto and its moons at just under 750,000 miles per day. The spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally.

APL designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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