Photo of the Week: Pluto’s blue skies


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Pluto’s blue haze is thought to be similar to that seen at Saturn’s moon Titan. Photo and caption courtesy of NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto’s blue haze is thought to be similar to that seen on Saturn’s moon Titan. Photo and caption courtesy of NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Another beautiful photo of Pluto was released this week along with news that the dwarf planet has blue skies and water ice. Incredible!

“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, in a NASA release.

I certainly wouldn’t. And I’m no scientist.

Top 5 photos: New Horizons mission shows ice flow on Pluto, Charon’s young surface


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It’s been a little more than two weeks since New Horizons made its historic flyby of Pluto. Since then, new photos have trickled out to the masses, each one more interesting than the last. The images shine some light on the planet’s many mysteries, but they’ve also led to a lot more questions.


This photo of Pluto was made possible thanks to images taken by the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and color data from the Ralph instrument. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Working together: The left side of the heart-shaped area – informally known at Sputnik Planum – is composed of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ice. “The two bluish-white ‘lobes’ that extend to the southwest and northeast of the ‘heart’ may represent exotic ices being transported away from Sputnik Planum,” according to this NASA release. (FYI: Do you know the significance of “Sputnik”? It’s the name of the first satellite in Earth’s orbit.)



What flows there? Let’s talk a bit more about this “exotic” ice. Looking above, you’ll see a sheet of ice that’s found in that heart-shaped region we’ve seen many times over. The ice appears to either have flowed or is currently flowing. (Do you see the darker swirls?) That means Pluto is geologically active, like Earth and Mars.  According to NASA, the “swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth.” Very cool.



Young mountains: As high as 11,000 feet, these mountains were quite the surprise to the New Horizons team. These are the youngest mountains seen anywhere in our solar system. “Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape,” according to this release. Scientists believe the ranges were formed 100 million years ago. While that may seem old to us, our solar system is 4.56 billion years old. These mountains are practically babies.

Something’s going on. What’s inside Pluto? This “Pluto in a Minute” feature could help.



HAZY: New Horizons didn’t stop taking pictures after it sped by the frigid world. More than 1 million miles away, the spacecraft snapped this beauty. Backlit by the sun, a ring of light can be seen surrounding Pluto. The haze extends out 60 miles further than scientists expected. “We’re going to need some new ideas to figure out what’s going on,” said Michael Summers, a New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University. Learn more about this surprising find here.



Why so few craters? Pluto’s largest moon Charon is showing its youth, too. While you can see some craters on the surface, there are relatively few, leading scientists to believe that geological activity has reshaped the moon’s surface, too. Do you see the line in the middle of Charon? Those are cliffs and troughs believed to have been caused by some sort of internal process.

New Horizons is successful in flyby of Pluto


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PLUTOWe’re going to let that message sink in. Congratulations to the entire New Horizons team! Bravo! 🙂

New Horizons makes historic flyby of Pluto


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Image credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI

Image credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI

I don’t typically wake up early in the morning, but when I do, it’s because … there was a historic flyby of Pluto! I woke up to this beauty after NASA posted the clearest picture it has of the dwarf planet so far.

It’s been an exciting morning as the New Horizons spacecraft made it closest approach to Pluto, completing a three-billion-mile plus journey to the outer reaches of our solar system. Now we wait until later this evening before we know how well New Horizons performed. Right now, it’s taking tons of scientific readings and images of the icy world.

In the meantime, we’ve compiled some social media reaction to New Horizons’ flyby of the Pluto system. Also, there’s some new information we learned so far. (They think it SNOWS on Pluto! How cool?!) Check out our Storify post.

New Horizons makes its final approach; highlights Pluto’s striking features


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A portrait from the final approach. Pluto and Charon display striking color and brightness contrast in this composite image from July 11, showing high-resolution black-and-white LORRI images colorized with Ralph data collected from the last rotation of Pluto. Color data being returned by the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto and Charon in a composite image from Saturday, July 11. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

How many of you are anxious about tomorrow? I feel like a kid waiting for the first day of school to begin. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

Tuesday morning, the New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest – and first ever! – approach to Pluto, an icy world that’s almost five billion miles away from Earth. We’ve been seeing picture after picture of the dwarf planet, each image becoming clearer than the last.

This is some groundbreaking stuff. Above, we see Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. That’s quite the difference from the photo we posted only days ago.

Below, we see more of Pluto’s features, including what could be cliffs and an impact crater.

For the first time on Pluto, this view reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater. redits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI


We’ve also learned that the dwarf planet is larger than we expected it to be. At 1,473 miles in diameter, “Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune,” according to a NASA release.

The New Horizons spacecraft will zip by Pluto at an incredible 30,800 miles per hour tomorrow. But we won’t hear from the unmanned spacecraft until much later. Check out this Pluto in a minute feature and find out why:

Don’t forget to watch the Science Channel and NASA TV for updates throughout the day. We’ll also be tweeting, so feel free to follow. And share! 🙂

Pluto flyby begins – What answers will billion mile, nine-year journey bring?


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READY FOR A CLOSE UP: Pluto as seen from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager July 8. (Image by NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

In four days, a spacecraft that has journeyed over three BILLION miles into the coldest reaches of our solar system will finally meet its maker.

All eyes will be on NASA’s New Horizons mission Tuesday, July 14, as the craft makes its closest approach to the enigmatic and highly beloved Pluto. (We’ll get a chance to see it all live on NASA TV and the Science Channel. Yah!) This will be the first time we’ll actually see up-close images of the dwarf planet, which has been shrouded in mystery since its discovery in 1930. The best photos we have so far are blurry at best. The picture above was taken Wednesday and it’s the most detailed image we have of the icy world.

“The science team is just drooling over these pictures. If you look at the new pictures now, it’s already five to six times better resolution than what we’ve been able to get before,” New Horizons scientist Hal Weaver told the Guardian.

The mission suffered a bit of a scare last week after an “anomaly” put the spacecraft into safe mode. Apparently the main computer overloaded after it received too many commands. Some science was lost, but only a fraction of all the data collected.

It was minor speed bump, says NASA:

There’s no risk that this kind of anomaly could happen again before flyby, as no similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter.

That’s good to know. It’s been nine years since NASA launched New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft ever to leave Earth. Can you even remember what you were doing in 2006? That’s the year Blu-Ray was released in the U.S., the Nintendo Wii made its debut, and ironically, Pluto was demoted from the “planet” to “dwarf planet” status.

Nine years is a long time to wait. But finally, the time has come. New Horizons has already begun making its flyby observations and with each passing day, we get a chance to know more than we did yesterday. What type of atmosphere does Pluto have? What’s on the surface? What’s up with the mysterious bright spot near the north pole? What’s its temperature? These are just a few of the many questions scientists hope to have solved. But most likely, more questions will be raised than answered. (That’s OK! It’s the best kind of science.)

After reaching its closest point to Pluto Tuesday morning, the spacecraft will gather data about the dwarf planet and its five known moons. Below is Charon, the largest of Pluto’s satellites.


More than 3.5 million miles away, New Horizons snaps this shot of Pluto, at right, and its moon Charon. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

You must check out this teaser for National Geographic’s documentary, “Mission Pluto.” It got me pretty pumped up for Tuesday.

Top 10 photos of Mars through the eyes of today’s missions


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Are we too late for the party?

NASA’s Curiosity rover celebrated its first Martian birthday last week, 686.98 days after successfully landing on Mars. (Remember: one Martian year = 686.98 Earth days) The Mini Cooper-sized rover, whose descent on Mars brought huge fanfare due to the infamous “7 minutes of terror,” has captured amazing photos during its journey. But Curiosity isn’t the only mission with its eyes set on the red planet.  Here’s 10 of our favorite photos taken through the lens of various missions investigating the spooky and oftentimes deadly planet.

10 – Rocknest

A beautiful mosaic of an area known as Rocknest. This composite image was taken in 2012.  (NOTE: The image has been white-balanced to show what the rocks and soils in it would look like if they were on Earth, according to NASA.) Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

A beautiful mosaic of an area known as Rocknest. This composite image was taken in 2012. (NOTE: The photo has been white-balanced to show what the rocks and soil would look like if they were on Earth, according to NASA.) Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

9 – An eye on its tracks

Curiosity snaps a picture of the marks made by its wheels as the one-ton rover heads toward Mount Sharp.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity snaps a picture of marks made by its own wheels as the rover heads toward Mount Sharp. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

8 – (Dry) ice melt

As the spring season begins, the red planet's dunes can be seen emerging from winter's cover. It's not snow; it's dry ice! This image was taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Obiter in January.  Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

As the spring season begins, the red planet’s dunes are shown peaking from winter’s cold embrace. It’s not snow, by the way. It’s dry ice! The photo was taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Obiter in January. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

7 – ‘Let me take a selfie’

In early 2014, during the time Curiosity drilled into an area called "Windjana," the vehicle-sized rover took dozens of pictures that were combined into  this selfie. Curiosity is looking good, no?

In early 2014, during the time Curiosity drilled into an area called “Windjana,” the one-ton rover took dozens of pictures that were combined into this selfie. Curiosity is looking good, no? Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU

6 – Crystals found

This rock - dubbed Harrison - contains light and dark-colored crystals. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNa

This rock – dubbed Harrison – contains light and dark-colored crystals. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNa

5 – The most active dunes

The Mars Roconnaissance Obiter has its eye on these dunes, the most active on the red planet. The area, which is continually monitored to track changes in wind,  is known as Nili Patera. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ.

The Mars Reconnaissance Obiter has had its eye on these dunes, the most active on the red planet, for quite some time. This area, which is continually monitored to track changes in wind, is known as Nili Patera. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ.

4 – A dust devil

This dust devil casts a shadow on Martian soil. The image was obtained by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

3 – Metallic rocks?

Curiosity exposed this rock’s shiny interior in 2013. “The inside of the rock … is much less red than typical Martian dust and rock surfaces, with a color verging on grayish to bluish,” according to NASA. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/ASU

2 – Where’d that rock come from?

Above is a before-and-after picture of an area of ground on Mars. You can see on the right that an object appears in view. (The pictures were taken 13 days apart by NASA's rover Opportunity.) How did the object, identified as a rock, get there?     NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

Above is a before-and-after picture of an area of Martian ground. The pictures were taken 13 days apart by another NASA’s rover dubbed Opportunity. How did the object, identified as a rock, get there? You tell me. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.



1 – Earth from Mars

Do you see the bright light a bit left of center? It's faint, but zoom in closer and you'll see a bright object in the sky. That's Earth as seen from Mars in January 2014.    Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU

Do you see the faint dot above the horizon and a bit left of center? Zoom in closer and you’ll see a bright object in the sky. That’s Earth as seen from Mars in January. It’s so tiny! Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/TAMU

New discoveries: Ringed asteroid surprises researchers; dwarf planet found in the outer Solar System


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This artist’s impression shows a close-up of what the rings might look like. Photo courtesy of ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger

This artist’s impression shows a close-up of what the rings might look like.
Photo courtesy of ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger

How well do we know our own backyard? A little better today.

This afternoon, Brazilian astronomers announced the discovery of a double ringed asteroid in the far reaches of our Solar System. While the news wasn’t officially released until today, Twitter was abuzz last evening with talk about what the major discovery could be. Unfortunately, the cat left the bag early. (Some people need to learn the definition of embargo!)

Anyway, back to the news: The asteroid, dubbed Chariklo, is the smallest object in our Solar System known to have rings.

According to lead scientist Felipe Braga-Ribas:

We weren’t looking for a ring and didn’t think small bodies like Chariklo had them at all, so the discovery — and the amazing amount of detail we saw in the system — came as a complete surprise!

Braga-Ribas also thinks a small moon could be orbiting the asteroid.

If that wasn’t cool enough for you, another big announcement relating to the outer Solar System was released today.

A dwarf-planet, called 2012 VP113, was found far beyond Pluto. In an interview with NewScientist, Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, said,

We thought Pluto was unique for over 70 years, but we now know that it shares its orbit with thousands of other objects … Sedna was unique for about 10 years but it’s now clear that Sedna and 2012 VP113 are just the tip of the iceberg.

The tip of the iceberg, indeed. Many say that this recent finding points to a massive planet beyond 2012 VP113. Why? The dwarf planet’s orbit tells scientists that something is going on.

While the latest news is fascinating, it also proves just how little we really know about our own Solar System. Here’s to many more discoveries ahead.

What you’ll be talking about tomorrow – Discovery in outer Solar System


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Photo of the week: Rocket launches straight into emerald aurora


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Image Credit: NASA/Christopher Perry

Image Credit: NASA/Christopher Perry

Isn’t she a beauty?!

NASA’s GREECE mission, which will study how the curls and swirls of an aurora forms, launched early last week.

“We can’t wait to dig into the data,” said one investigator on the project.

We can’t either!