Enigmatic Pluto emits x-rays and ‘spray-paints’ its largest moon, new research shows

For the first time, x-rays have been detected around Pluto, as seen by Chandra (inset image). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Chandra X-Ray Center
For the first time, x-rays have been detected around Pluto, as seen by Chandra (inset image). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Chandra X-Ray Center

It has been 14 months since the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto and its moons, but data still continues to come in, and new discoveries are still being made. The dwarf planet has surprised scientists by its geological activity, for the most part unexpected for such a small, cold body. Now two new results are adding to the mystery of Pluto: the detection of x-rays emanating from the surface and new evidence that Pluto “spray-paints” the north pole of its largest moon Charon a rusty red colour.

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New Horizons finds evidence for frozen ocean inside Pluto’s moon Charon

The canyons of Charon, some of which dwarf the Grand Canyon on Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The canyons of Charon, some of which dwarf the Grand Canyon on Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

One of the most surprising discoveries in recent years in the outer Solar System is that there are small moons which have oceans inside them. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus are now known to have global oceans of water beneath their icy crusts, and others are thought to as well, including Ganymede, Titan, and possibly others. These moons have a lot of ice and rock as well, and gravitational tugging and heating from the large gas giant planets helps maintain a deep layer of liquid water inside them, where otherwise they would most likely be frozen solid in the deep cold so far from the Sun. Now it seems that another moon also once had an ocean, although in this case it is thought to now be solid ice: Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

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2015 in review: a year of spectacular planetary missions and discoveries

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons, showing rugged mountains and vast icy plains. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons, showing rugged mountains and vast icy plains. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

To say that 2015 has been a great year for planetary exploration would be an understatement, with fantastic new discoveries from around the Solar System. From our first ever close-up look at Pluto and its moons, to more evidence for ancient lakes and rivers on Mars (and current briny streams) to weird bright spots and mountains on Ceres, to the continuing study of Saturn and its moons, notably Enceladus, to spectacular close-up views of a comet, it has indeed been quite a year.

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A moon falling apart: grooves on Phobos are a sign of its eventual catastrophic fate

The unusual grooves on Phobos’ surface, such as those on the left side of this image, are now thought to be caused by tidal stress. The large crater Stickney is in the upper portion of the image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The unusual grooves on Phobos’ surface, such as those on the left side of this image, are now thought to be caused by tidal stress. The large crater Stickney is in the upper portion of the image. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Phobos is the largest of Mars’ two tiny moons, but 50 million years from now, that may no longer be the case. According to new research, Phobos is gradually being pulled apart by Mars’ gravity and will eventually be destroyed. The unusual long grooves on Phobos’ surface, which have been a puzzle for planetary scientists, are a key piece of evidence that point to eventual structural failure of this little worldlet.

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Cassini sends back spectacular new images of the north pole region of Enceladus

New high-resolution view of the north polar region on Enceladus, showing a cratered surface crisscrossed by many cracks. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
New high-resolution view of the north polar region on Enceladus, showing a cratered surface crisscrossed by many cracks. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has just successfully completed the first of three final close flybys of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and has sent back some spectacular images of the northern regions of this icy and watery world, the best views ever seen so far. Two more upcoming flybys will dive back into the water vapor plumes at the south pole and measure how much heat is emanating from the tiny moon’s interior.

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Here it comes! massive downlink of Pluto data starts with spectacular new images

Perspective view of Pluto, composed of the latest high-resolution images. The entire expanse of terrain seen in the image is 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) across. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Perspective view of Pluto, composed of the latest high-resolution images. The entire expanse of terrain seen in the image is 1,800 kilometres (1,100 miles) across. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

After a lull of several weeks, the downlinking of new data from the New Horizons spacecraft has begun, including stunning new images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, as well as a treasure trove of other scientific data. There is so much to come that it will take about one year to downlink everything from the spacecraft and send back to Earth. Those first amazing images of Pluto and its moons were only the beginning.

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Scientists debate how to search for life on Europa in new mission

Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa hides a water ocean beneath its surface. A return mission is now planned to help search for evidence of life there. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL
Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa hides a water ocean beneath its surface. A return mission is now planned to help search for evidence of life there. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Jupiter’s moon Europa, with its subsurface ocean, is considered by many to be the best place in the Solar System to search for extraterrestrial life. With NASA now committing itself to a new mission sometime in the 2020s, the focus is turning to what would be the best strategy for looking for any life which may be there. Over 200 scientists and engineers met at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., last week for a workshop called The Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume to do just that.

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Getting closer! New Horizons sees two of Pluto’s smaller moons for first time

Long-exposure images taken by New Horizons between Jan. 27 and Feb. 8, 2015, showing the two tiny moons Hydra (inside yellow diamond) and Nix (inside orange diamond). Image Credit: Image credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Long-exposure images taken by New Horizons between Jan. 27 and Feb. 8, 2015, showing the two tiny moons Hydra (inside yellow diamond) and Nix (inside orange diamond). Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The New Horizons spacecraft, on course for a historic encounter with Pluto this summer, is now close enough to see two of its smaller moons for the first time. The new views also come 85 years after the discovery of Pluto by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh on Feb. 18, 1930.

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