July 14, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Pluto Inbound Image Stuns Scientists

It’s not a featureless orb: Pluto has a whale and a heart.  A “complex and nuanced” surface shows that Pluto and its large moon Charon had a history.

While mission controllers await signals at 6 pm EST today (July 14) assuring that New Horizons made it through the Pluto system…

Update 9:45 EST: New Horizons “phoned home” to say that it survived, according to Space.com.  We have this exclusive quote from Dr. Henry Richter (Caltech-JPL), the last surviving manager of Explorer 1 (Jan 31, 1958), America’s first successful satellite. Richter, a pioneer of the American space program before NASA was formed, was also was instrumental in designing the Deep Space Network that received the signals from Pluto today. He says:

The Pluto fly-by is another tremendous accomplishment. The development of such perfect reliability is amazing. To have than many components, to work perfectly after years of interplanetary travel shows the understanding of failure avoidance and superb engineering. This pretty much completes the detailed pictures of the major objects in the solar system. Kudos to the NASA staff.

Here is the global portrait that sent scientists jumping to their feet in applause a few hours ago (see celebration photos on Nature and PhysOrg):

Pluto inbound image from New Horizons

Pluto inbound portrait July 13, 2015

This image has a 1,000 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. During its closest approach, New Horizons should have taken photos as detailed as 100 meters per pixel. If all goes well, data and photos will trickle down over the next 16 months, each bit taking 4.5 hours to travel the 3 billion miles between Pluto and Earth. Compare the photo above with one taken June 27 (PhysOrg); the best is yet to come.

Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission, shared some initial science findings.

  • Pluto is larger than expected. Its newly measured radius of 1185 km means that the body is less dense than previously thought. This affects density models of its interior and lowers the altitude of the troposphere. Pluto regains its position as largest body in the Kuiper Belt.
  • Nitrogen was found escaping much farther from Pluto than expected. Either the escape rate of gas is higher than predicted, or the transfer rate is different.
  • It was confirmed that Pluto has a polar ice cap.

The paucity of large craters suggests resurfacing by some means.  And what caused the differences between dark and light regions? That question is sure to be a subject of great interest.

The early montage photo shows that Charon has significantly different color and albedo than Pluto.

Charon and Pluto, July 13, 2015, from New Horizons

Charon and Pluto from New Horizons, July 13, 2015

Astrobiology Magazine is suggesting that Pluto may have icy plumes, perhaps like the geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Comparisons between Pluto and Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and with Triton, Neptune’s active moon, are being made by Space.com. In addition, the sharp boundaries between dark and light areas recall the brightness dichotomies on another Saturnian moon, Iapetus. Scientists hope to find answers to Titan’s apparent youth, because its atmosphere could not have lasted 4.5 billion years, Space.com says:

“It’s likely that Titan’s current atmosphere is not sustainable over geologic time — that is, on the order of billions of years,” [Michael] Wong [Caltech] told Space.com via email. “The current amount of methane in the atmosphere — the molecule that is responsible for the production of Titan’s haze and exciting organic compounds — should not last for more than a few tens of millions of years.

So how does Wong account for it?  “Climate change,” he quips. To keep Titan old, he imagines cycles of “snowball state” on Titan with re-injections of warming methane from time to time. But ten million years is just 1/450th the assumed age of Titan; can such a process keep repeating hundreds of times? That’s why Wong is looking to Pluto for clues. “Pluto may be losing its atmosphere more rapidly than previously thought,” Space.com says, “offering a tantalizing hint about its possible replenishment source.

Scientific analysis of Pluto will take months and years as the data trickle in. For now, romantic types are enjoying the big heart shape seen on the inbound image (PhysOrg). Marine biologists saw a whale shape in the dark areas. Even if these inbound images were all that came down, it represents a historic achievement that will fascinate scientists and the public for years. All the old Hubble photos have just been rendered obsolete except to historians. Pluto has become a world we know something more about.

Alan Stern and others have also celebrated the success of the American space program – the freedom and expertise that have allowed mankind to complete the first reconnaissance of the solar system within 51 years. Coincidentally, July 14 is the anniversary of the very first planetary encounter by Mariner 4 at Mars.

This is a great day for scientific discovery. Undoubtedly, the secular naturalists will try to pitch evolution. Bill Nye was seen at the briefing at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL) wearing his D-Merit Badge; he will probably look for open mikes to make his pitch that America needs to teach evolution to stay ahead in science. The astrobiologists will put on their hydrobioscopy glasses and engage in divination about the possibility of life on Pluto. Ignore all that.

Ask the questions the secularists don’t ask. If Pluto shows activity, like Triton, Titan, Io, Enceladus and even our moon, how can one believe this has gone on for 4.5 billion years? The burden of proof is on them, because it’s their anomaly. We’ll get into that later after the science comes down. For now, this is a historic day to celebrate intelligent design. Thanks, all you bright NASA engineers who pulled it off! You make Americans proud.



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