Astronomy Picture of the Day – Pluto from above Cthulhu Regio

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 September 14

Pluto from above Cthulhu Regio
Image Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ./APL, Southwest Research Inst.

 

Explanation: New high resolution images of Pluto are starting to arrive from the outer Solar System. The robotic New Horizons spacecraft, which zoomed by Pluto in July, has finished sending back some needed engineering data and is now transmitting selections from its tremendous storehouse of images of Pluto and its moons. The featured image, a digital composite, details a surprising terrain filled with craters, plains, landscape of unknown character, and landforms that resemble something on Earth but are quite unexpected on Pluto. The light area sprawling across the upper right has been dubbed Sputnik Planum and is being studied for its unusual smoothness, while the dark cratered area just under the spacecraft is known as Cthulhu Regio. So far, New Horizons has only shared a few percent of the images and data it took during its Pluto flyby, but will continue to send back new views of the dwarf planet even as it glides outward toward even more distant explorations.

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Astronomy Picture of the Day – Pluto in Enhanced Color

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 August 31

Pluto in Enhanced Color
Image Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ./APL, Southwest Research Inst.

 

Explanation: Pluto is more colorful than we can see. Color data and images of our Solar System’s most famous dwarf planet, taken by the robotic New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby in July, have been digitally combined to give an enhanced view of this ancient world sporting an unexpectedly young surface. The featured enhanced color image is not only esthetically pretty but scientifically useful, making surface regions of differing chemical composition visually distinct. For example, the light-colored heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio on the lower right is clearly shown here to be divisible into two regions that are geologically different, with the leftmost lobe Sputnik Planum also appearing unusually smooth. New Horizons now continues on beyond Pluto, will continue to beam back more images and data, and will soon be directed to change course so that it can fly past asteroid 2014 MU69 in 2019 January.

Astronomy Picture of the Day – Pluto Resolved

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 July 15

Pluto Resolved
Image Credit & Copyright: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ./APL, Southwest Research Inst.

 

Explanation: New Horizons has survived its close encounter with Pluto and has resumed sending back images and data. The robotic spacecraft reported back on time, with all systems working, and with the expected volume of data stored. Featured here is the highest resolution image of Pluto taken before closest approach, an image that really brings Pluto into a satisfying focus. At first glance, Pluto is reddish and has several craters. Toward the image bottom is a surprisingly featureless light-covered region that resembles an iconic heart, and mountainous terrain appears on the lower right. This image, however, is only the beginning. As more images and data pour in today, during the coming week, and over the next year, humanity’s understanding of Pluto and its moons will likely become revolutionized.

Astronomy Picture of the Day – New Horizons Passes Pluto and Charon

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 July 14


New Horizons Passes Pluto and Charon
Image Credit & Copyright: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ./APL, Southwest Research Inst.

 

Explanation: Will the New Horizons spacecraft survive its closest approach to Pluto and return useful images and data? Humanity will know in a few hours. Regardless of how well it functions, New Horizon’s rapid speed will take it whizzing past Pluto and its moons today, with the time of closest approach being at 11:50 UT (7:50 am EDT). To better take images and data, though, the robotic spacecraft was preprogrammed and taken intentionally out of contact with the Earth until about 1:00 am UT July 15, which corresponds to about 9:00 pm EDT on July 14. Therefore, much of mankind will be holding its breath through this day, hoping that the piano-sized spacecraft communicates again with ground stations on Earth. Hopefully, at that time, New Horizons will begin beaming back new and enlightening data about a world that has remained remote and mysterious since its discovery 85 years ago. Featured above is a New Horizons composite image of the moon Charon (left) and Pluto (right) taken 3 days ago, already showing both worlds in unprecedented detail.

Astronomy Picture of the Day – Last Look at Pluto’s Charon Side

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 July 13

Last Look at Pluto’s Charon Side
Image Credit & Copyright: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ./APL, Southwest Research Inst.

 

Explanation: Pluto surface is strange. As the robotic New Horizons barrels toward its closest approach to Pluto and its moons tomorrow, images already coming back show Pluto’s surface to be curiouser and curiouser. The featured image, taken two days ago, shows the side of Pluto that always faces Pluto’s largest moon Charon. Particularly noteworthy is the dark belt near the bottom that circles Pluto’s equator. It is currently unclear whether regions in this dark belt are mountainous or flat, why boundaries are so sharply defined, and why the light regions seem to be nearly evenly spaced. As New Horizons will be flying past the other side of Pluto, this should be the best image of this distant landscape that humanity sees for a long time. Assuming the robotic spacecraft operates as hoped, images taken of the other side of Pluto, taken near closest approach, will be about 300 times more detailed.

Astronomy Picture of the Day – MESSENGER’s Last Day on Mercury

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 May 1


MESSENGER’s Last Day on Mercury
Image Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ. APL, Arizona State Univ., CIW

 

Explanation: The first to orbit Mercury, the MESSENGER spacecraft came to rest on this region of Mercury’s surface yesterday. Constructed from MESSENGER image and laser altimeter data, the scene looks north over the northeastern rim of the broad, lava filled Shakespeare basin. The large, 48 kilometer (30 mile) wide crater Janacek is near the upper left edge. Terrain height is color coded with red regions about 3 kilometers above blue ones. MESSENGER’S final orbit was predicted to end near the center, with the spacecraft impacting the surface at nearly 4 kilometers per second (over 8,700 miles per hour) and creating a new crater about 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter. The impact on the far side of Mercury was not observed by telescopes, but confirmed when no signal was detected from the spacecraft given time to emerge from behind the planet. Launched in 2004, the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemisty and Ranging spacecraft completed over 4,000 orbits after reaching the Solar System’s innermost planet in 2011.