NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently turned its telescopic camera toward a field of stars, snapped an image – and made history
Scientists have been sifting through data gathered from observing the object’s quick pass in front of a star – an astronomical event known as an occultation – on June 3. More than 50 mission team members and collaborators set up telescopes across South Africa and Argentina, along a predicted track of the narrow shadow of MU69 that the occultation would create on Earth’s surface, aiming to catch a two-second glimpse of the object’s shadow as it raced across the Earth. Accomplishing the observations of that occultation was made possible with the help of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Gaia, a space observatory of the European Space Agency (ESA).
On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history by conducting the first flyby of Pluto. This represented the culmination of a nine year journey, which began on January 19th, 2006 – when the spacecraft was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. And before the mission is complete, NASA hopes to send the spacecraft to investigate objects in the Kuiper Belt as well.
Had Pluto itself not proved to be so spectacular when NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past last year, there can be no doubt that its large moon Charon would have won more admirers.
The remarkable moon has a mysterious dark-red stain over its north pole, called “Mordor Macula” by the New Horizons team – where Macula means “dark spot” and Mordor refers to the “black land” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. While many bodies in the solar system have polar caps or hoods of some sort, these are typically bright, due to reflective ice or frost of some kind, rather than dark. So what’s going on at Charon? A new study, published in Nature, has proposed an answer.
Three billion miles from Earth, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, moving at speeds that would get it from New York to Los Angeles in about four minutes, was pointing cameras, spectrometers, and other sensors at Pluto and its moons – distant worlds that humankind had never seen up close – recording hundreds of pictures and other data that would forever change our view of the outer solar system.
Far in the western hemisphere, scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission have discovered what looks like a giant “bite mark” on Pluto’s surface. They suspect it may be caused by a process known as sublimation—the transition of a substance from a solid to a gas. The methane ice-rich surface on Pluto may be sublimating away into the atmosphere, exposing a layer of water-ice underneath.