News from Space: New Horizons Passes Neptune

new-horizons-neptuneIt certainly has been a momentous few weeks for space exploration! Between the final weeks of August and the month of September, we’ve seen the Curiosity rover reach Mount Sharp, the Rosetta spacecraft created the first full map of a comet’s, the completion of the Orion space module, and the MAVEN orbiter reach Martian orbit. And before the month is out, India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) will also arrive in orbit around the Red Planet.

Despite all these developments, that occurred (relatively) close to home, there was even more news to be had, coming all the way from the edge of the Solar System no less. At the tail end of August, NASA announced that the New Horizons space probe passed Neptune orbit and is on its way to Pluto. Launched back in 2006 for the purpose of studying the dwarf planet, the probe is expected to arrive on July 14th of next year.

new-horizons-neptune-8NASA says that the the craft passed the Neptunian orbit at 10:04 pm EDT on Monday August 25th, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989. But where Voyager came within 4,950 km (3,080 mi) of the gas giant, the New Horizons craft passed by at a distance of 3.96 billion km (2.45 billion mi). The spacecraft is now almost 4.42 billion km (2.75 billion mi) from Earth, and is the fastest man-made object ever sent into space.

Nevertheless, New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was still able to capture images of Neptune and its giant moon Triton. As you can see from the image below, Neptune appears as the large white disc in the middle, while Triton is the small black dot passing in front and sitting slightly to the ride. NASA says that Triton may be very similar to Pluto and the information gathered by Voyager 2 may prove helpful in the coming encounter.

new_horizons_plutoRalph McNutt of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

There is a lot of speculation over whether Pluto will look like Triton, and how well they’ll match up. That’s the great thing about first-time encounters like this – we don’t know exactly what we’ll see, but we know from decades of experience in first-time exploration of new planets that we will be very surprised.

The first mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program, the New Horizons mission was launched on January 19, 2006 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It broke the record for the fastest man-made object on lift off with a speed of 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph). The 478 kg (1,054 lb) spacecraft was sent on a 9.5-year mission to fly by Pluto – a distance so far that radio signals from the nuclear-powered probe take four hours to reach Earth.

new-horizons-neptune-7Sent on a slingshot trajectory using the gravitational pull of Jupiter, which tacked on another 14,480 km/h (9,000 mph) to its speed, New Horizons will pass Pluto in July of next year at a distance of 13,000 km (8,000 mi). After this encounter, it will continue on out of the Solar System, during which it will be in the distant Kuiper belt studying one or more Kuiper belt objects (KBOs).

Though this will still not rival Voyager 1’s accomplishments, which left our Solar System last year, New Horizons promises to gather far more information on the Outer Solar System and what lies beyond. All of this will come in mighty handy when at last, humanity contemplates sending manned missions into deep space, either to Alpha Centauri or neighboring exoplanets.

Sources: gizmag.com, nasa.gov

News from Space: The Search for Life on Europa

europa-landerJupiter’s moon of Europa is one of the best and most intriguing candidates for extra-terrestrial life in our Solar System. For many decades, scientists have known that beneath its icy outer-shell, a warm, liquid ocean resides. Due largely to interaction with Jupiter’s strong magnetic field – which causes heat-generating tidal forces in Europa’s interior – these warm waters may host life.

And now, new models suggest that its ice-covered waters are turbulent near the lower latitudes. This is what gives rise to its chaotic equatorial landscapes, but intriguingly, may also make it easier for life to make it to the surface. This contradicts previously held beliefs that Europa’s life was contained beneath it’s outer shell, and will mean that any missions mounted to Europa may have an easier time spotting it.

europa_chaosterrainThanks to ongoing observation of the planet’s surface – especially the Galileo and New Horizons space probes which provided comprehensive and detailed images – it has been known that Europa’s surface features are not consistent. The landscape is marked by features of disrupted ice known as chaos terrains, geological features that are characterized by huge chunks of ice that have broken away and then re-froze into chaotic patterns.

These models were produced by University of Texas geophysicist Krista Soderlund and her colleagues. Based on computer simulations, Soderlund and her colleagues have theorized that turbulent global ocean currents move Europa’s internal heat to the surface most efficiently in regions closest to the moon’s equator. This is likely causing the melting and upwelling at the surface, and why regions further north and south appear to be smoother.

europa_modelIn addition, the models indicate that given Europa’s spin, heat flow, and other factors, it likely percolates upward at about 1m per second or so — which is remarkably fast. This would explain why the equatorial regions appear to be so fragmented. But it also means that these areas are also likely yo be relatively fragile and soft, which means that upward currents could bring nutrients and even living organisms to the surface.

Hence why any potential search for signs of life on this moon would now appear to be considerably easier. If missions are indeed mounted to Europa in the not-too-distant future, either involving probes or manned missions (most likely in that order), their best bet for finding life would be to land at the equator. Then, with some drilling, they could obtain core samples that would determine whether or not life-sustaining nutrients and organic particles exist beneath the ice.

Hopefully, these missions won’t run afoul of any life that doesn’t take too well to their presence. We don’t want a re-enactment of Europa Report on our hands now do we?

Source: IO9.com