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Tuesday 10 November 2015

Lots of Pluto related strangeness from DPS 2015, ULA's plans to expand the space economy, mystery dust cloud circles Mars...

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Volcanic activity on Pluto:

A huge amount of news from DPS 2015 , mainly focusing on Pluto discoveries by the New Horizon's spacecraft, came out yesterday. NASA made it's own announcement (follow the title link). The big news were two probable cryovolcanoes, named  (unofficially) Piccard Mons and  Wright Mons. 

Above: A topographic map showing two possible cryovolcanic mountains on Pluto. Courtesy of NASA.

That wasn't everything though: New Horizon's data has also revealed that the ages of different parts of Pluto's surface vary hugely, the atmosphere is smaller and colder than expected, it's small moons are wobbling around their orbits chaotically, and two of them are made of still smaller objects stuck together somehow.

Above: An animation showing how Pluto's moons spin. Courtesy of NASA.

On top of all that, some of Pluto's mountains might actually be floating on it's 'glacier ocean'. 
How come such as small, cold, world has so much  activity going on? The answer might well be ammonia: Ammonia is a potent antifreeze, and could soften the water ice making up most of Pluto enough to allow convection to take place, according to a model presented at DPS 2015. Professor Jay Melosh lead the research with graduate student Alex Trowbridge. "We found that a mantle containing a small amount of ammonia - which has been seen on the surface of bodies in the outer solar system and plausibly condensed in the planets in this region – lowers the temperature required to achieve a Rayleigh number [a measure of viscosity] where convection occurs," Trowbridge said. "The ammonia lowers the viscosity of water ice by a factor of 100,000. This would allow for the geologically active and vigorous Pluto seen in the New Horizon images."

There's a lot more to come over the week - check out yesterdays post for a few of the interesting abstracts on the DPS website. Until we hear more, here's a link to the slides from the presentations.

Above: An artists impression of the mountains and glacier 'ocean' on Pluto.

ULA releases part three of it's roadmap to expand the space economy:

If you missed it, last week I wrote about United Launch Alliance publishing infographics on how it plans to expand mankinds space economy. They've put up graphics on twitter covering where we are today, where they hope to take us in five years, and now they've published where they hope to get us in fifteen years....
Above: ULA's third inforgraphic.

This seems like a very ambitious goal to me, and may well represent ULA's hopes and dreams rather than what they really think they will achieve. But there are elements there that I've heard being bandied about for a long time as the things space engineers would do to help mankind expand into the solar system: In space propellant storage, lunar mining, and large scale LEO tourism. I'm not going to hold my breathe for this - but I'm not going to poo-poo it and dismiss it either. It's an ambitious goal: I'll hope the space industry can make it happen!

Virgin Galactic appoints veteran Kelly Latimer as newest space pilot:

Virgin Galactic, the private space flight company owned by Richard Branson's Virgin group, has selected combat veteran and retired  USAF Lieutenant Colonel Kelly Latimer as it's newest pilot. Latimer's CV is impressive and then some: Her roles have included C-17 Instructor Aircraft Commander, C-141 experimental test pilot, and Senior USAF Advisor to the Iraqi Air Force and its reconnaissance squadron. Latimer personally flew 90+ combat sorties with members of IqAF Sq 70 and flew 130+ combat hours in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.
As 418th Flight Test Squadron Commander and Global Reach Combined Test Force, she led more than 650 military, civilians and contractors to execute developmental and operational testing of airlift and special ops systems and commanded a flight test squadron of 280 personnel. Before joining Virgin Galactic, Latimer held positions at Boeing where she was a key team member on system development, aircraft design, engineering and certification and conducted the very first flight tests of Boeing’s KC-46/767 aerial tanker program. Latimer also served as Deputy Director for Airlift Operations and Chief Pilot for C-17 and was responsible for operations globally, managing test pilots and other aircrew to prepare for and conduct safe test flight operations

Above: Kelly Latimer. Courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

ESA releases stunning images of the giant polar 'Hurricane' on Venus:

Although ESA's Venus Express mission is over, data from it will be being studied and new findings made for a very long time. This week ESA has released an eye catching collection of infra red images, taken by Venus Express of the mysterious hurricane like vortex that swirls around Venus' pole. The images show just how persistent, yet how changeable, the vortex is.

Above: Infra red images of the heat escaping through the polar vortex of Venus. Image courtesy of ESA.

Strange cloud of dust encircles the planet Mars:

MAVEN, NASA's mission to study the atmosphere of Mars, has discovered a strange cloud of high altitude dust particles, at heights of up to a thousand kilometres above the planet's surface. The results are baffling, as there is no known mechanism that could throw dust from the surface and up to such a height. "If the dust originates from the atmosphere, this suggests we are missing some fundamental process in the Martian atmosphere," says Laila Andersson, who is lead author on the paper. Her paper and three others from MAVEN can be found in Science (here).

Above: Mars, seen from orbit. Courtesy of NASA.

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