“We already knew there was methane on Pluto, but these are our first detections”, Lowell Observatory planetary scientist Will Grundy, who heads New Horizons’ surface composition team, said in a NASA news release.
Methane, an odorless, colorless gas exists underground and in the atmosphere on Earth.
NASA’s New Horizon probe – set for a Pluto flyby on July 14 – has confirmed that there is frozen methane on Pluto’s surface. The decision on whether to keep the spacecraft on its original course or adopt a Safe Haven by Other Trajectory, or “SHBOT” path, had to be made this week since the last opportunity to maneuver New Horizons onto an alternate trajectory is July 4. For comparison, that is just under 40 times the distance from Earth to the Moon, and New Horizons will cover that in a sprint lasting less than two weeks.
Dr Stern said the “longstanding and dramatic difference in the colours and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and greyer moon Charon” were puzzling.
According to the images, Pluto appears to be having a surface with a strong contrast, a bright northern hemisphere, and a band of darker materials that run the length of the planet’s equator.
Charon’s dark polar region is even more pronounced than in earlier images.
This is how the Sun looked in ultraviolet light to NASA’s SOHO spacecraft on June 16, 2015.
Consequently, with the New Horizons spacecraft nearing Pluto, the astronomical community hasn’t been as excited as this since August 1989, when we enthusiastically waited for the Voyager 2 spacecraft to give us our first detailed view of Neptune.
Getting on track hasn’t been the only thing New Horizons is doing on its approach to the historic close pass over Pluto.
“We’re looking for clouds in our images using a number of techniques”, said Kelsi Singer, a post-doctoral researcher at the Southwest Research Institute.
The craft is now on the approach to Pluto’s system.
In fact, timing and accuracy are critical for all New Horizons flyby observations, since those commands are stored in the spacecraft’s computers and programmed to “execute” at exact times.
However, there should be ample opportunity to study them in the days leading up to the encounter. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Alan Stern, leader of the New Horizons mission, was quoted as saying he was embarrassed that less than five percent of astronomers cast a vote in the debate.
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