New Horizon's slow, slowwwww download of the data it took during it's historic flyby of Pluto (it's down loading from beyond the furthest planet in our solar system, so I suppose we can't complain too much) has revealed some of the strangest and most astounding landscapes on Pluto so far. The images are all part of one huge mosaic, taken in a long strip by New Horizon's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera during its july flyby. The strip is fifty miles wide, and these new images are six times better than the resolution of the global Pluto map New Horizons obtained, and five times better than the best images of Pluto’s cousin Triton, Neptune’s large moon, obtained by Voyager 2 in 1989.
Follow the strip from one end to the other, and it takes us on a journey across the surface of an incredibly strange world that human eyes will probably never see up close: From the mountainous Plutonian horizon, where what might be haze in the atmosphere can be seen hovering over the hills...
|Above: Pluto's Horizon, Courtesy of JPL|
...across terrain punctuated by fractures and dark asteroid craters, that seem to have drilled into the surface and revealed layers of lighter and darker material....
|Above: Impact craters, that have revealed a strange gobstopper like structure to the Plutonian sub surface. Courtesy of JPL/NASA|
....to the mountainous shores of Pluto's great sea of nitrogen ice glaciers, which is divided into strange cell-like structures, and which show wave like features in the new close ups.....
|Above: The coast of Pluto's nitrogen glacier sea. Courtesy of JPL/NASA|
... then on over the heart of the glacier sea, where pits that have aligned them selves into bizarre, almost organic, patterns are seen...
|Above: the weirdly aligned pits that cover the surface of the glaciers. Courtesy of NAS/JPL.|
The pits seem to contain some sort of dark material, much like the dark stuff welling up along the boundaries of the huge cells:
|Above: A close up of some of the pits.|
I have no idea what to compare these pits to - their strangely organic way of aligning with each other, and the dark material they reveal (is that the surface beneath the glaciers?) doesn't exactly match anything I've ever seen in the solar system, although some strange pit features on the surface of Mercury come close:
|Above: The mysterious pits on Mercury, which are formed by an unknown process and seem to be eating into the rock cross the planet. Courtesy of NASA/JPL|
In fact a lot of the things we've seen on Pluto - the pits, the cell-like glaciers, the dragon skin terraion - have a weirdly organic look to them. The chances of anything we see on Pluto being evidence of life a re extremely tiny: Anything that lived on Pluto would need to be buried deep underground where there might still be enough warmth for liquid wate, or be based on some strange and exotic chemistry that could survive under the incredible cold and near vacuum of Pluto. But, that said, perhaps Pluto is telling us that some principles and patterns extend to both living and non living things alike, when the conditions are right?
I don't know what the significance of it all is, but I do know that they information New Horizons is sending back will keep scientists busy - and mystified - for decades to come.
Thanks to Herobrine of unmannedspaceflight.com all the raw Pluto pictures are collected for you here. The LORRI strip mosaic is available here, or you can watch the NASA video of it below:
Lastly, to cap it off, New Horizons has taken one of the closest ever images of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), part of the belt of icy'asteroids' that encircles all the planets:
|Above: The LORRI images of the KBO. Courtesy of JPL/NASA.|
Elsewhere in the Universe:
Kettle sized Sun mission
The bread loaf-sized Miniature X-Ray Solar Spectrometer CubeSat is scheduled to rocket to space alongside thousands of kilograms of supplies and science experiments destined for the International Space Station. MinXSS will study the spectroscopy of soft x-rays, a kind of radiation from the Sun which is highly variable and can affect GPS and radio. MinXSS will hitch a ride to space aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft, and be launched ionto space from the ISS. Cubesat missions like these provide a great way to get students involved in real space missions: "I've worked on nearly every aspect of MinXSS," said James Mason, a graduate student studying aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. "Students can get involved with everything on a CubeSat mission—systems engineering, management, manufacturing, and even on-orbit science analysis."
Virgin Galactic unmanned LauncherOne rocket takes shape
LauncherOne is Virgin Galactic's move to break into the growing market for launching small spacecraft (like cubesats). It was unveiled to the public with the understanding that Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft would ferry the air-launch rocket to altitude for all missions, the same as it does the SpaceShip2 manned vehicle.That has changed however, because the interest and initial mission contracts were so much that it would have strained WhiteKnightTwo’s ability to adequately perform both SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne missions.
“Demand has become so significant that LauncherOne will have its own dedicated aircraft,” noted Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides. That aircraft will be a converted Boeing 747, named the Cosmic Girl.