New Horizons looks back at Pluto

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One year after New Horizons’ breath-taking fly-by of Pluto, the science team has written a review of what they have learned.

They list what they consider the mission’s top ten discoveries, which I think can be summed up in one phrase: the uncertainty of science. Pluto was more active geologically and atmospherically than predicted by all models. It was also more complex. Other surprises: Both Pluto and Charon show evidence of sub-surface liquid oceans of water. Charon’s dark red polar baffles them. They unexpectedly found no additional moons, and also discovered that as far as they can tell by the available data, the moons were all formed when Pluto formed, something they also did not expect.

The one thing that I expected that did happen? We got close, and discovered things we had not expected. Be prepared for further surprises when New Horizons flies past Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.


  • Localfluff

    Bob, maybe you could regularly comment on the weekly tele conferences (presentations really) of FISO “Future In Space Operations”?

    They are sometimes very interesting, often held by the best in their field and always up to date.

    The last one is a complete and current overview of space radiation health risks. My conclusion is that we’ll never figure out what the risks are by trying to investigate it down here. We must send astronauts out there and then study their health for the rest of their lives. Even then it will take many decades to get any conclusive statistics. Data from atomic bomb survivors are not reliable for ionic radiation. Different ions cause different cancers in mice, however that could be possible, they just can’t interact with different genes, there must be some complicated process involving how genes are repaired from different degree of damage. And most research has been done on the “harderian glend”, an organ which mice have but not humans, because it develops cancer so fast which makes it even less representative. It’s a mess.

    By the way, I highly recommend the lecture archive at iBiology. If you thought cosmology was strange, have a look at microbiology and be very afraid!

  • mivenho

    My God, it’s been a year already?

  • wodun

    I understand the impatience of waiting so long to do a Pluto mission and that many of the people who worked on it in the beginning might not have been there at the end and that long duration space missions have a lot of failure risks but in the long term, it would be useful to send something(s) at a slower rate of travel so that Pluto could be studied in detail over a longer time frame.

    Initially, I get the rush but there should have been a follow on mission(s). There wont be because there are so many places to go and the Decadal Science Survey only allows for so many missions. This means we get good but diffuse programs and none of them support human settlement, which is another gripe.

  • Edward

    We would have waited even longer for the Pluto mission, except that the scientists made a compelling argument that as Pluto got farther from the sun, the atmosphere would condense onto the surface, that we would have to send a mission there now in order to study the atmosphere. The next opportunity would be more than two centuries from now.

    Pluto reached perihelion, closest approach to the sun, more than 25 years ago, and has been getting farther away ever since. Eventually, Pluto’s temperature will decrease and its atmosphere will condense and go away.

    In the early part of our exploration of the solar system, we focused on the planets. They are much more interesting to the public and to more astronomers than the asteroids and comets. Halley’s Comet was a relatively easy sell, for investigators, as it has a certain amount of history and romance associated with it, plus it’s orbit and timing were well known, so that planning and executing a mission would be relatively easy.

    We have recently included asteroids and comets in our exploration, and have found that they are much more interesting objects than previously thought. I suspect that it will be much easier, now, to convince the funding organizations to send more probes to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt objects than it was before New Horizons, Rosetta, and Dawn.

    It turns out that the solar system is so much more interesting that we had ever imagined, before we sent out our many probes.

  • Alex

    Edward statet: “It turns out that the solar system is so much more interesting that we had ever imagined, before we sent out our many probes.”

    No really. Maybe in relation to the “set-back” period between 1962-1980, in which results from first probes had reached us from planets. Think about original popular imaginations about Mars and Venus before space age that included firm assumptions of existing life at these planets. This video, which displays a dream of a somewhat different Mars, was made in transition time, in which was realised that Mars for example is probably a dead dessert. Similar in case of Venus.

    However, in case of outer Solar system you are right.

    Disney’s Mars & Beyond 5 of 6 – Life on Mars

    Disney’s Mars & Beyond 2 of 6 – Mars in Pop Culture

  • Edward

    SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) has a group that works on what kind of life may exist off of Earth. They don’t get quite as fanciful as Disney or some of the science fiction of those long ago days. However, if more men colonize Mars than women, when the time comes, the “Mars Needs Women” plot may come true.

  • wayne

    Earth Vs. the flying saucers

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