NASA craft discovers heart shape on Pluto as flyby nears

July 12, 2015 by Kerry Sheridan
Artist's concept drawing shows NASA's New Horizons spacecraft which is scheduled to make a historic flyby of Pluto on July 14
Artist's concept drawing shows NASA's New Horizons spacecraft which is scheduled to make a historic flyby of Pluto on July 14

There's a near-perfect heart shape on Pluto's rusty red surface which scientists are seeing for the first time as a piano-sized NASA spacecraft, New Horizons, hurtles toward the distant body on its way toward a historic flyby on July 14.

The dwarf planet is also dotted with bright points which may be ice caps, and a mysterious dark shape nicknamed "The Whale."

"We're at the 'man in the moon' stage of viewing Pluto," said John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"It's easy to imagine you're seeing familiar shapes in this bizarre collection of light and dark features. However, it's too early to know what these features really are."

But scientists expect those mysteries to be solved in coming days as the spacecraft closes in on Pluto, once considered the farthest planet in the solar system before it was reclassified as a in 2006.

That same year, the New Horizons mission launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a journey of nearly 10 years and three billion miles, becoming the first spacecraft to explore this far-away frontier.

"We are coming up on the culmination of all this effort, all this planning," said Joe Peterson, a science operations leader for the New Horizons mission.

"Very soon we are going to go by Pluto and get the actual goods."

The closest flyby is scheduled for July 14 at 7:50 am (1150 GMT), when New Horizons passes within 6,200 miles (9,977 kilometers) of Pluto.

Moving at a speed of 30,800 miles (49,570 kilometers) per hour, it is the fastest spacecraft ever launched.

Graphic showing the New Horizons spacecraft which will start taking photos of Pluto

Comprehensive picture

The $700 million unmanned spacecraft has seven sophisticated science instruments and cameras that are collecting data daily and sending it back to Earth.

"The instruments on New Horizons were all designed to work together to give us a comprehensive picture of the Pluto system," said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist for New Horizons.

They include three optical instruments, two plasma instruments, a dust sensor and a radio science receiver.

Together they will help scientists study Pluto's geology, surface composition, temperature and atmosphere—as well as its five moons.

Blurry, pixellated color images began arriving in April and May, when the spacecraft was about 50 million miles (80 million kilometers) away from its destination.

After a brief system failure caused the spacecraft to go into safe mode on July 4, the best image yet was taken on July 7 when New Horizons was just under five million miles (eight million kilometers) from Pluto.

The image shows a light-colored heart shape some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) across, and a darker, whale-like shadow at its side.

"I love this one," said Olkin, indicating that the shape could be due to ice.

Picture obtained July 7, 2015 from NASA shows color images from the New Horizons spacecraft showing two faces of Pluto, one with
Picture obtained July 7, 2015 from NASA shows color images from the New Horizons spacecraft showing two faces of Pluto, one with a series of intriguing spots along the equator that are evenly spaced

"We know that there are ices on Pluto, and we expect those ices to be brighter."

More data in the coming days should reveal more clues about the composition of Pluto's surface, as well as its Texas-sized moon, Charon.

"The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution," said Jeff Moore, geology, geophysics and imaging Team Leader of NASA's Ames Research Center.

The best views are expected Monday through Thursday of next week, said principal investigator Alan Stern.

Even after the whizzes by, the data and pictures will keep coming in for another 16 months, Stern told NPR's Science Friday.

"This is the gift that keeps on giving," he said.

New Horizons has enough power to continue traveling for 20 years, but will never catch up with NASA's Voyager 1, which launched in 1977 and is the most distant man-made object in space, Stern said.

In 2013, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, some 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from the Sun.

Explore further: New Image of Pluto: 'Houston, We Have Geology'

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PhysicsMatter
1.6 / 5 (7) Jul 12, 2015
Voyager 1 and 2. pride of American space program launched in 1970-ties left solar system decades ago and Voyager 2 left heliosphere and entered interstellar medium over a decade ago all run on computing power of simplest $5 calculator. That's what I call achievement. It gives some reference to these interesting but no so exciting news except for planetologists. Congratulations but it is not an amazing achievement after almost 70 years of space age but sadly almost too little and almost too late.
john_george
1 / 5 (13) Jul 12, 2015
lies. all lies so they can keep their multi million dollar jobs and funding by the billions to steal! the planets, every one of them are dead, period! no dirt, no gold, no water, no silver and NO LIFE! nasa is the biggest lie their ever was!
ThomasQuinn
4.3 / 5 (7) Jul 12, 2015
lies. all lies so they can keep their multi million dollar jobs and funding by the billions to steal! the planets, every one of them are dead, period! no dirt, no gold, no water, no silver and NO LIFE! nasa is the biggest lie their ever was!


And how do you know all this? Oh wait, you don't!
shavera
5 / 5 (3) Jul 12, 2015
god I wish we were paid "multi million dollar" salaries for our jobs. Frankly, NASA considerably underpays me for what I could get in industry doing similar work.
Eikka
5 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2015
all run on computing power of simplest $5 calculator.


That isn't strictly true. A $5 calculator is based on a finite state machine, because it's simpler to construct. It's basically a bunch of read-only memory where each memory cell contains a short code that represents the outgoing signals of that state, and a reference code which is combined with user input to derive the next memory cell for the next state.

Such a machine doesn't really have a processor that runs a program - it has just some registers to hold values and a memory that describes all possible states the machine can take. Consequently, it's not turing complete. Computational power isn't solely described by the speed at which you can perform simple arithmetics.

You can make a state machine by connecting a EEPROM chip with a D-latch buffer on the address selector lines. Looping some of the data outputs from memory back to the address select lines lets you to make it hop between states.
Returners
1 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2015
Because it's only a fly-by and the planet rotates so slowly, they won't even be able to make a complete high-resolution map of the planet. They are probably only going to get about 3/4 of the planet at high resolution. Not to mention to the Moons, which are only going to get a few snap-shots each. When the mission was designed only one of the moons was known.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jul 12, 2015
Here's the simple EEPROM state machine explained:

https://www.youtu...zm4pBQjE

You can see the hardware is incredibly simple. It's just memory.

The unused address inputs can become user inputs, like a button, and the device has a different sequence stored for each possible input, so it can perform function sequences^ like reading user input off a keypad and pushing it to an LCD screen.

Binary addition and subtraction are trivially performed as a sequence of simple states, and division/multiplication is just repeating the same, so the basic calculator doesn't really need anything else - so the modern 4-function calculator doesn't contain a microprocessor but just a couple state machines made of a whole bunch of ROM.

^(One very quickly notices that this also describes the microcode sequencer of a microprocessor, which is the part that takes in the program input and decodes it as action sequences for the different functional units of the CPU.)
antigoracle
1 / 5 (1) Jul 12, 2015
nasa is the biggest lie their ever was!

Yeah, they didn't even walk on the moon, all they did was hop around.
jsdarkdestruction
5 / 5 (4) Jul 13, 2015
lies. all lies so they can keep their multi million dollar jobs and funding by the billions to steal! the planets, every one of them are dead, period! no dirt, no gold, no water, no silver and NO LIFE! nasa is the biggest lie their ever was!

So what are the planets made of then? Please provide detailed scientific evidence for it and how current theory is wrong.
I have an open mind and am willing to consider alternative science if the evidence is sufficient but you've got a long long way to go.
jonesdave
5 / 5 (3) Jul 13, 2015
lies. all lies so they can keep their multi million dollar jobs and funding by the billions to steal! the planets, every one of them are dead, period! no dirt, no gold, no water, no silver and NO LIFE! nasa is the biggest lie their ever was!


"their ever was". That would be "there". Game over. Can't spell, can't possibly do science. Goodnight.
mreda14
not rated yet Jul 15, 2015
I think NASA plan was that New Horizon flyby around Pluto was supposed to be on the 4th of July. Missed it by 10 days.
NiteSkyGerl
2.3 / 5 (6) Jul 15, 2015
lies. all lies so they can keep their multi million dollar jobs and funding by the billions to steal! the planets, every one of them are dead, period! no dirt, no gold, no water, no silver and NO LIFE! nasa is the biggest lie their ever was!


No, that was your mother telling you that you aren't a walking piece of shit!

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