New Horizons Delivers First Color Images of Pluto System From 30 Million Miles Away

A color animation of Pluto and Charon, assembled from a series of images that were taken with New Horizons' onboard Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera, or MVIC, between May 29-June 3. This specific view shows the Pluto-Charon system from a Pluto-centric point of view, with Pluto positioned at the center of the frame and Charon slowly revolving around it. Pluto's north pole is at the top. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

A color animation of Pluto and Charon, assembled from a series of images that were taken with New Horizons’ onboard Multi-spectral Visible Imaging Camera, or MVIC, between May 29-June 3. This specific view shows the Pluto-Charon system from a Pluto-centric point of view, with Pluto positioned at the center of the frame and Charon slowly revolving around it. Pluto’s north pole is at the top. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The transition from black-and-white filming to color during the mid-20th century was a pivotal event which fundamentally changed the entertainment industry and the way that cinema and television were perceived and experienced by the public at large. In similar fashion, NASA’s New Horizons mission, after beaming back hundreds of black-and-white images of Pluto and its largest moon Charon in recent months, has now returned the first color animations which depict the orbital motions of these two mysterious and fascinating worlds at the outskirts of the Solar System, while also elevating the quality of the science as well as the aesthetic appeal that is inherent in these images to new levels. 

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New Study Suggests Pluto's Charon May Have Harbored Underground Oceans Long Ago

An artist's depiction of Pluto, as seen from the surface of its largest moon Charon. A recent study by a team of US astronomers argues that Charon might harbor frozen underground oceans of liquid water, the pressence of which could be inferred by surface geologic features that could be visible to the New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

An artist’s depiction of Pluto, as seen from the surface of its largest moon Charon. A recent study by a team of US astronomers argues that Charon might harbor frozen underground oceans of liquid water, the pressence of which could be inferred by surface geologic features that could be visible to the New Horizons spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

With less than four weeks remaining before NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft speeds through the Pluto system for humanity’s first-ever close-up reconnaissance of the distant planet and its assortage of moons, speculation runs rampant among scientists and the general public alike about what these mysterious worlds at the outer reaches of the Solar System might look like up close. In the absence of any hard evidence thus far, scientists can only make educated guesses about what we’ll actually see when New Horizons makes its long-awaited flyby of Pluto and its moons on July 14.

In one such study, a team of U.S. astronomers has argued about the possibility for the existence of cracks on the surface of Pluto’s biggest moon Charon, not unlike those that have been documented on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. If such findings were indeed to be uncovered on Charon, they would provide strong evidence for the existence of past liquid water oceans on the interior of the faraway frigid moon.

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Methane Discovered in Martian Meteorites: A Clue to Possible Life?

Methane has been discovered in some meteorites originating from Mars. Could it be a clue to life? Image Credit: Image by Michael Helfenbein

Methane has been discovered in some meteorites originating from Mars. Could it be a clue to life? Image Credit: Michael Helfenbein

The puzzle of methane on Mars has taken an interesting new twist: For the first time, the gas has been detected within Martian meteorites. The finding adds another layer to the ongoing controversy over the origin of the methane, whether it is abiotic and geological or a potential biosignature of life, either past or present.

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Alien Ocean: All Systems Go for New NASA Mission to Europa

Artist's conception of the Europa Clipper during a flyby of Europa. Image Credit: NASA

Artist’s conception of the Europa Clipper during a flyby of Europa. Image Credit: NASA

After many years of people hoping and waiting, NASA has announced that a new mission to Europa has successfully completed its first major review by the agency and now is entering the development phase, known as formulation. In other words, we are finally going back to Europa!

Europa is considered one of the best places elsewhere in the Solar System to search for evidence of alien life, with its underground salt water ocean. With salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa is thought to have the ingredients necessary for life of some kind. Whether there actually is anything alive there is, of course, the big question.

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Early Mars May Have Been Cold and Icy Rather Than Warm, According to New Study

Conceptual image of the two competing warm or cold models of early Mars. Image Credit: Robin D. Wordsworth

Conceptual image of the two competing warm and cold models of early Mars. Image Credit: Robin D. Wordsworth

The debate over whether Mars used to be warmer and wetter or colder and wetter earlier in its history has been a long and contentious one. Now, a new study suggests it may be the latter, that Mars was indeed wetter, as overwhelming evidence has already shown, but that it was still a rather cold and icy climate overall.

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SALVO Cubesat Rocket Debuts Stealth Launch Vehicle Era

Artist concept depicts SALVO Cubesat launcher on belly of F-15. The liquid oxygen/kerosene powered rocket may already have begun secret launches off Cape Canaveral. Image Credit: DARPA

Artist concept depicts SALVO Cubesat launcher on belly of F-15. The liquid oxygen/kerosene powered rocket may already have begun secret launches off Cape Canaveral. Image Credit: DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force are poised to begin the Cape Canaveral launch of Cubesats on a new advanced technology rocket called SALVO, for Small Air Launch Vehicle to Orbit. SALVO launchers will be carried aloft for release from an Air Force F-15E fighter jet flying over the U.S Eastern Test Range.

It is possible that the actual launch to orbit of Cubesat spacecraft on SALVO rockets has already begun in secret to counter electronic and infrared intelligence gathering by Russia and China. The flight of a SALVO test article on a F-15 fighter actually began months ago, and likely involved earlier flights over the Eastern Range to checkout telemetry links.

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Steady As She Goes: New Horizons Successfully Completes Small Course Correction Prior to Pluto Encounter

An artist's concept of NASA's New Horizons spacecraft during its closest approach to Pluto and Charon on July 14. With just four weeks remaining before this much-anticipated spaceflight event, New Horizons remains healthy and on course for its rendezvous with history. Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

An artist’s concept of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its closest approach to Pluto and Charon on July 14. With just four weeks remaining before this much-anticipated spaceflight event, New Horizons remains healthy and on course for its rendezvous with history. Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (JHUAPL/SwRI)

With the clock swiftly ticking down to humanity’s eagerly anticipated first close-up reconnaissance of Pluto and its moons on July 14, courtesy of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, mission controllers on the ground are continuously monitoring the robotic explorer’s fast-track course through interplanetary space and adjusting it when necessary, in order to ensure a successful flyby. To that end, New Horizons successfully executed a critical, small, 45-second thruster burn on June 14, thus helping to keep the spacecraft where it should be along its path as it speeds through the Pluto system at a breakneck speed of 13.78 km per second.

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Four Weeks to Pluto: From a Point of Light to a Real World (Part 2)

Artist's conception of Pluto and Charon. Image Credit: ESO

Artist’s conception of Pluto and Charon. Image Credit: ESO

Thirty days from now, on 14 July, a machine fashioned by human hands will speed silently past one of the last great unexplored wildernesses of our Solar System. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched 9.5 years ago, is close to the culmination of its mission to reveal Pluto—“planet,” “dwarf planet,” “trans-Neptunian object,” or “Kuiper Belt object,” depending upon your preference—and its system of moons, including its binary companion, Charon, as never before. By so doing, New Horizons will bring full-circle our first-time exploration of each of the traditionally accepted nine planets in the Sun’s realm. Although Pluto was formally demoted in 2006 to the status of a dwarf planet, a trans-Neptunian object, and the largest known body in the Kuiper Belt, fierce debate still rages as to whether it ought to be reinstated as a “planet” or retain its somewhat less lofty descriptor. Over the coming days and weeks, AmericaSpace’s New Horizons Tracker and a series of articles by Mike Killian, Leonidas Papadopoulos, and myself will cover the discovery and exploration of Pluto to date, the trials and troubles faced by those who desired to send a spacecraft there, and the unfolding developments as New Horizons seeks to make this unknown world known.

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Philae Is Alive! ESA Comet Lander Feared Dead, Phones Home After 7 Months of Silence

ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever  touchdown on a comets surface.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven-hour-long approach for first ever touchdown on a comet’s surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA – Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The European Space Agency (ESA) made history last fall with the long-awaited arrival of their Rosetta mission to comet 67P, a decade-long trip intended to establish orbit around a cold and ancient time capsule from the darkest depths of the outer Solar System. But not only that, Rosetta brought along Philae, a lander. Humanity had never landed on a comet until 2014 with the arrival of Philae.

Rosetta’s arrival and establishment in its science orbit alone was incredible, but a successful landing and real science on the comet’s surface was always the big payoff. Now Philae, the lander that infamously went into hibernation after completing its science mission on Nov. 14, 2014, is awake again after seven months of silence.

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'The Sultans of Space': 30 Years Since the Multi-Cultural Mission of STS-51G (Part 2)

Pictured on Discovery's aft flight deck, the STS-51G crew featured three discrete sovereign nations for the first time in shuttle history. Front row, from left, are John Creighton, Shannon Lucid and Dan Brandenstein, with Sultan Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, Steve Nagel, John Fabian and Patrick Baudry in the background. Photo Credit: Joachim Becker/SpaceFacts.de

Pictured on Discovery’s aft flight deck, the STS-51G crew featured three discrete sovereign nations for the first time in shuttle history. Front row, from left, are John Creighton, Shannon Lucid, and Dan Brandenstein, with Sultan Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, Steve Nagel, John Fabian, and Patrick Baudry in the background. Photo Credit: NASA

Thirty years ago, on 17 June 1985, the seven-strong crew of the 18th shuttle mission rocketed into orbit with a cargo of three commercial communications satellites, a free-flying astronomical observatory, the oldest woman yet to travel into space, and representatives of no fewer than three discrete nations—the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia—packed aboard Discovery. Mission 51G was the fourth of nine shuttle flights which would be undertaken in 1985, the year preceding the calamitous loss of Challenger, and it marked the high-watermark of a time in which the reusable fleet of orbiters were in the midst of a “Golden Age” of dazzling achievements. As described in yesterday’s history article, the flight had attracted more than its fair share of controversy, on religious, cultural, and technological grounds, but would turn out to be a remarkable success.

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