New Horizons completes another course adjustment in preparation for 2019 flyby of next KBO

Artist’s conception of New Horizons approaching 2014 MU69 in 2019. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Steve Gribben

Long after its incredible encounter with Pluto and its moons in 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft is continuing its journey deeper into the Kuiper Belt in the outer reaches of the Solar System. Mission scientists and engineers are now preparing for its next close flyby, of a smaller body called 2014 MU69, on Jan. 1, 2019. Along the way, New Horizons makes occasional slight course corrections to keep it on track, and now the spacecraft has just successfully completed its latest one.

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Ancient water world: Tectonics on Pluto’s moon Charon point to frozen subsurface ocean

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Charon (upper left) and Pluto as seen by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Charon is Pluto’s largest moon and, despite being so cold and remote from the Sun, has been revealed to be a fascinating and active world, just like Pluto itself. Residing in the far outskirts of the Solar System, it had been expected that Charon – and Pluto for that matter – would be little more than frozen, dead worlds. But just like the rest of the Solar System, there were surprises waiting to be found. Thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft, we got our first close-up views of the Pluto system in July 2015. It soon became evident that not only were Pluto and Charon geologically active in the ancient past, but they perhaps still are in some ways even now. One of the most surprising findings was both Pluto and Charon likely had subsurface water oceans; while it is thought that Pluto’s is probably still liquid, Charon’s is likely completely frozen, and now additional evidence for its existence has been published by researchers.

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‘Cracked and tipped over’ Pluto has a subsurface ocean: New evidence from New Horizons

View of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto. This vast region of nitrogen ice provides clues that a subsurface ocean of liquid water exists on Pluto. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
View of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto. This vast region of nitrogen ice provides clues that a subsurface ocean of liquid water exists on Pluto. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto, a tiny frigid world in the distant outskirts of the Solar System, has been full of surprises, as first revealed by the New Horizons spacecraft back in July 2015. Expected to be mostly a cold, geologically dead place, it has instead been shown to be quite the opposite. Yes, it’s bitterly cold of course, but New Horizons found ample evidence that it has also been geologically active in the past and in some ways still is. With tall mountains of solid water ice, ancient riverbeds carved by nitrogen rivers, vast plains, still-flowing glaciers of nitrogen ice, and possible ice volcanoes, Pluto is a wondrous world indeed. Another new finding makes it even more remarkable: evidence for a subsurface ocean of water. This had also been reported on previously by AmericaSpace, but the new update strengthens the case.

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New Horizons finishes returning Pluto data to Earth before continuing farther into Kuiper Belt

Artist’s depiction of data being sent by New Horizons back to Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Artist’s depiction of data being sent by New Horizons back to Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

To say that the New Horizons mission has been a success would be a massive understatement; this first-ever spacecraft to visit Pluto has revolutionized our understanding of this distant, small world. Pluto and its moons are complex and active places, more so than thought possible by most scientists. Even though New Horizons flew past Pluto instead of orbiting it in July 2015, it still collected an enormous amount of information, which has taken more than a year to be sent back to Earth. That process is now complete, NASA just announced.

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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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Does Pluto have a subsurface ocean? New research says probably

The discovery of huge faults on Pluto provides evidence for a possible liquid water ocean beneath the ice crust. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The discovery of huge faults on Pluto provides evidence for a possible liquid water ocean beneath the ice crust. Photo Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

So-called “waterworlds” have been found to be surprisingly common in the Solar System – small icy moons which have ice crusts but oceans of liquid water below the surface. These include Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, and possibly others. These moons are cold and very far from the Sun, but heated inside by the gravitational pull of their giant host planets and/or radioactivity. Now there’s another Solar System body which, even more surprisingly, some scientists think has a subsurface ocean: Pluto.

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New ‘KEM’ proposal would extend New Horizons post-Pluto mission to 2021

If approved by NASA, the KEM proposal will allow New Horizons to continue its study of the outer fringes of the Solar System until 2021, including a flyby of 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
If approved by NASA, the KEM proposal will allow New Horizons to continue its study of the outer fringes of the Solar System until 2021, including a flyby of 2014 MU69. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The New Horizons mission has revolutionized our understanding of Pluto and its moons, after conducting the first-ever flyby last summer. These mysterious worlds were finally seen up close, and this new view created as many, if not more, new questions as it answered old ones. While the flyby may be long over now, the spacecraft itself is still in excellent health and continues to plunge deeper into the Kuiper Belt at the outer fringes of the Solar System. Scientists have been eager for New Horizons to continue exploring this region farther out past Pluto, and now a proposal has been formally submitted to NASA to do just that. This extended mission will conduct a flyby of at least one more Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) and last until 2021.

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Pluto once had rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen, New Horizons data suggests

Artist’s conception of Pluto’s surface, with the distant Sun and largest moon Charon in the sky. The surface is frozen now, but evidence suggests that rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen once flowed here. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker
Artist’s conception of Pluto’s surface, with the distant Sun and largest moon Charon in the sky. The surface is frozen now, but evidence suggests that rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen once flowed here. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

As has been discussed extensively now, New Horizons has revealed Pluto to be a place unlike any other in the Solar System, with vast plains and glaciers of nitrogen ice, tall mountains of solid water ice capped with methane snow, layers of haze in its atmosphere, and perhaps an ocean of water below the surface. Now, there is additional evidence that Pluto once had rivers and lakes of liquid nitrogen on its surface, during times when the atmosphere was thicker than it is now. Just when you think Pluto can’t get any more bizarre, it does.

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Pluto revealed: Five new Science papers highlight discoveries by New Horizons

High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons. The large smoother area of ice in Sputnik Planum is the western lobe of the “heart” feature. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
High-resolution view of Pluto from New Horizons. The large smoother area of ice in Sputnik Planum is the western lobe of the “heart” feature. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto is a tiny world in the outer fringes of the Solar System; for many decades it was only a mere speck of light in even the best telescopes, with only vague hints of surface features. Then, in July 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto, the first time ever that humanity would get to see this mysterious place up close – and it did not disappoint. An enormous amount of data has continued to be sent back by New Horizons since the flyby, and now five new papers have been published which provide an in-depth overview of the findings so far about Pluto and its moons. Pluto is an active world, with its own unique geology different from anywhere else in the Solar System.

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New Horizons discovers methane ‘snow’ on Pluto’s mountain peaks

Methane “snow” on mountain peaks in the Cthulhu region of Pluto. The enhanced colour version of the inset image is on the left and the false colour version is on the right. The image covers an area 450 kilometres (280 miles) long by 225 kilometres (140 miles) wide. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Methane “snow” on mountain peaks in the Cthulhu region of Pluto. The enhanced colour version of the inset image is on the left and the false colour version is on the right. The image covers an area 450 kilometres (280 miles) long by 225 kilometres (140 miles) wide. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

As the data from New Horizons continues to come in, we are learning more about what an incredible little world Pluto really is, with tall mountains of rock-hard water ice, as well as glaciers and vast icy plains composed of nitrogen ice. In some ways, these features are visually reminiscent of similar ones on Earth, and now this week another cool discovery was revealed: methane snow on some of Pluto’s mountain peaks.

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