This enhanced color mosaic combines some of the sharpest views of Pluto that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft obtained during its July 14 flyby. The pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel – revealing features smaller than half a city block on Pluto’s surface. Lower resolution color data (at about 2,066 feet, or 630 meters, per pixel) were added to create this new image.
The images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide, trending (top to bottom) from the edge of “badlands” northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Pluto’s “heart” feature, and just into its icy plains. They combine pictures from the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) taken approximately 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with – from a range of only 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers) – with color data (in near-infrared, red and blue) gathered by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) 25 minutes before the LORRI pictures.
The wide variety of cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains seen here gives scientists and the public alike a breathtaking, super-high-resolution color window into Pluto’s geology.
Source: NASA press release
The seafaring explorers of the 16th century famously found many new homes for humanity in faraway, unknown corners of the world. While it may seem that such colonisation has since ground to a halt, some have argued it is only a matter of time before humans start moving to “exoplanets” in foreign star systems. But how close are we to such an expansion?
In February of 2017, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of seven rocky planets around the nearby star of TRAPPIST-1. Not only was this the largest number of Earth-like planets discovered in a single star system to date, the news was also bolstered by the fact that three of these planets were found to orbit within the star’s habitable zone.
The study of extra-solar planets has turned up some rather interesting candidates in the past few years. As of August 1st, 2017, a total of 3,639 exoplanets have been discovered in 2,729 planetary systems and 612 multiple planetary systems. Many of these discoveries have challenged conventional thinking about planets, especially where their sizes and distances from their suns are concerned.
Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer astronomers have constructed the most detailed image ever of a star — the red supergiant star Antares. They have also made the first map of the velocities of material in the atmosphere of a star other than the Sun, revealing unexpected turbulence in Antares’s huge extended atmosphere. The results were published in the journal Nature.
How chemical reactions on a lifeless planet floating around in the cold darkness of space can suddenly give rise to living organisms is one of the biggest questions in science. We don’t even know whether the molecular building blocks of life on Earth were created here or whether they were brought here by comets and meteorites.
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.
Decades after Enrico Fermi’s uttered his famous words – “Where is everybody?” – the Paradox that bears his name still haunts us. Despite repeated attempts to locate radio signals coming from space and our ongoing efforts to find visible indications of alien civilizations in distant star systems, the search extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) has yet to produce anything substantive.
In 2013, the European Space Agency launched the Gaia spacecraft. As the successor to the Hipparcos mission, this space observatory has spent the past three and a half years gathering data on the cosmos. Before it retires sometime next year (though the mission could be extended), this information will be used to construct the largest and most precise 3D astronomical map ever created.
The Universe is an extremely big place. As astronomers looked farther into space over the centuries, and deeper into the past, they came to understand just how small and insignificant our planet and our species seem by comparison. At the same time, ongoing investigations into electromagnetism and distant stars led scientists to deduce what the the speed of light is – and that it is the fastest speed obtainable.
NASA’s orbiter Cassini will make a series of decreasing orbits that will end in a fiery death dive into Saturn’s atmosphere in September. This deliberate termination of a still serviceable spacecraft is to comply with “planetary protection” protocols, designed to minimise the risk of depositing stowaway Earth microbes into an environment where they might be able to reproduce.