Friday, July 10, 2015

New Horizons - a final frontier

Part of me just does not want to sleep.  It's excitement.

Currently the New Horizons space probe is only a few days away from it's destined fly-by of Pluto.  This is quite a monumental day - it's likely to be the last time we get a "first" look at the surface of a new "planet" during my lifetime (technically it's designated a dwarf planet).  And already what we can see in grainy pictures is intriguing - this heart-shaped "continent" of what could be ice.


It's exciting.  We know it's size and mass, it's about a fifth of our own Moon.  We have a good idea because of this and where it is that it's made of mainly ices - it's incredibly cold there, and the Sun has only 0.1% the heat we get in our orbit.

But we know nothing of what it looks like.  Pretty much we'd imagined some cratered object like our own Moon or Mercury, just made from a different material.  But as the image above shows, it looks like something else is going on, not just some uniform object which has been impacted with cosmic debris.  What kind of geological processes are in play here, and why does it's nearby partner dwarf-planet of Charon look so different?

Pluto and Charon

In the last few years we've found a handful of other dwarf-planets.  We used to think Pluto represented the edge of the solar system, but instead it marks the start of a whole other realm known as the Kuiper Belt where the dominance of gas giant planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune gives way to a cluster of much smaller objects - asteroids and dwarf planets.  It makes us appreciate how the solar system has no "edge" to it as we were once led to believe.

Most of all it's exciting because it's exploration.  We have never been here before.  We are seeing something totally new - we may go back (but with taking almost a decade to get there, it won't be any time soon), but if we do, it'll be to clarify things we learn in the next few days.  This is exploration at it's most raw - driven as all exploration is by curiosity.

You can find the latest here.

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