Friday, February 12, 2010

New Views of Pluto

This is an interesting observation of changes taking place on Pluto.  We learn that as far as she is away from the sun, it appears to still possibly be affected.

I wonder how much elemental carbon exists on the surface.  I anticipate a great deal.

In the meantime this is not a barren moon.  We have an atmosphere showing some unexpected behavior however thin it may be.

New Views of Pluto Reveal Weird Bright Spot Staff Writer
posted: 04 February 2010

The Hubble Space Telescope has returned the most detailed images of Pluto ever taken.
The new photos reveal the strange mini-world in near true-life color, close to what the dwarf planet would look like to an observer traveling toward it in a spacecraft, scientists said. The surface appears reddish, yellowish, grayish in places, with a mysterious bright spot that is particularly puzzling to scientists.
Some of the colors revealed in the new pictures of Pluto are thought to result from ultraviolet radiation from the sun interacting with methane in the tenuous atmosphere of the dwarf planet. The bright spot apparent near the equator has been found in other observations to be unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost.
"This is our best candidate, that it's carbon related," Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. said during a Thursday teleconference.
The new images should provide "a real treasure trove of information in understanding the nature of Pluto and how it evolved and changes with time," Buie said.

Pluto is a world on the fringe of the solar system with three small moons called Charon, Nix and Hydra. It was discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, and was long considered a full-fledged planet. But in 2006, after much debate in the astronomical community, Pluto was downgraded to "dwarf planet" status, along with other cosmic bodies such as Ceres and Eris.
Scientist Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., who as discoverer of Eris was partly responsible for this demotion, says not to feel too bad for Pluto.
"Pluto is a fascinating world and it doesn't really care what we call it," Brown said. "I think this is an exciting thing to see and an exciting thing to try to understand how the entire solar system works."
Pluto is the destination for NASA's New Horizons probe, a spacecraft currently on a course to fly by Pluto and its moons in 2015.
"It's about halfway there already and when its gets there we're going to get all sorts of great pictures and great data," Buie said. "But these [Hubble] maps have been used already to help plan the encounter.
When compared to older data from 1994, the new photos – taken by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys – reveal a surprising amount of change in the appearance of Pluto. Over that period, Pluto has gotten redder, while its northern polar region has gotten brighter and its southern hemisphere has gotten darker.
One reason for the variability, scientists say, is Pluto's highly eccentric – or oblong – orbit, which causes strong variations in temperature. Pluto takes 248 years to make a full orbit around the sun.
"Right now it's close to being springtime on Pluto," Brown said. "In the fall things will freeze out. It's just a ridiculously extreme place to be."
Since the dwarf planet is so small and so far away, it has been difficult to gather detailed data before. When New Horizons arrives, that probe should reveal even higher quality data. But until then, Hubble's vision is by far the best view we've ever gotten.
"This has taken four years and 20 computers operating continuously and simultaneously to accomplish," says Buie, who developed a special computer program to sharpen the Hubble data.
The findings are detailed in the March 2010 issue of the Astronomical Journal.

 Hubble Catches Pluto Changing With The Years

by Staff Writers
Washington DC (SPX) Feb 5, 2010

This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. The center disk (180 degrees) has a mysterious bright spot that is unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. Pluto is so small and distant that the task of resolving the surface is as challenging as trying to see the markings on a soccer ball 40 miles away. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute). Photo No. STScI-PR10-06a More images and captions at Hubble

NASA today released the most detailed set of images ever taken of the distant dwarf planet Pluto. The images taken by NASA's Hubble SpaceTelescope show an icy and dark molasses-colored, mottled world that is undergoing seasonal changes in its surface color and brightness. Pluto has become significantly redder, while its illuminated northern hemisphere is getting brighter.

These changes are most likely consequences of surface ices sublimating on the sunlit pole and then refreezing on the other pole as the dwarf planet heads into the next phase of its 248-year-long seasonal cycle. The dramatic change in color apparently took place in a two-year period, from 2000 to 2002.
The Hubble images will remain our sharpest view of Pluto until NASA's New Horizons probe is within six months of its Pluto flyby. The Hubble pictures are proving invaluable for picking out the planet's most interesting-looking hemisphere for the New Horizons spacecraft to swoop over when it flies by Pluto in 2015.
Though Pluto is arguably one of the public's favorite planetary objects, it is also the hardest of which to get a detailed portrait because the world is small and very far away. Hubble resolves surface variations a few hundred miles across, which are too coarse for understanding surface geology.

But in terms of surface color and brightness Hubble reveals a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange and charcoal-black terrain. The overall color is believed to be a result of ultraviolet radiation from the distant sun breaking up methane that is present on Pluto's surface, leaving behind a dark and red carbon-rich residue.

When Hubble pictures taken in 1994 are compared with a new set of images taken in 2002 to 2003, astronomers see evidence that the northern polar region has gotten brighter, while the southern hemisphere has gotten darker. These changes hint at very complex processes affecting the visible surface, and the new data will be used in continued research.

The images are allowing planetary astronomers to better interpret more than three decades of Pluto observations from other telescopes, says principal investigator Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

"The Hubble observations are the key to tying together these other diverse constraints on Pluto and showing how it all makes sense by providing a context based on weather and seasonal changes, which opens other new lines of investigation."

The Hubble pictures underscore that Pluto is not simply a ball of ice and rock but a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes. These are driven by seasonal changes that are as much propelled by the planet's 248-year elliptical orbit as its axial tilt, unlike Earth where the tilt alone drives seasons.

The seasons are very asymmetric because of Pluto's elliptical orbit. Spring transitions to polar summer quickly in the northern hemisphere because Pluto is moving faster along its orbit when it is closer to the sun.

Ground-based observations, taken in 1988 and 2002, show that the mass of the atmosphere doubled over that time. This may be due to warming and sublimating nitrogen ice. The new Hubble images from 2002 to 2003 are giving astronomers essential clues about how the seasons on Pluto work and about the fate of its atmosphere.
The images, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, are invaluable to planning the details of the New Horizons flyby in 2015. New Horizons will pass by Pluto so quickly that only one hemisphere will be photographed in the highest possible detail.
Particularly noticeable in the Hubble image is a bright spot that has been independently noted to be unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. It is a prime target for New Horizons. "Everybody is puzzled by this feature," says Buie.

New Horizons will get an excellent look at the boundary between this bright feature and a nearby region covered in pitch-black surface material.

"The Hubble images will also help New Horizons scientists better calculate the exposure time for each Pluto snapshot, which is important for taking the most detailed pictures possible," says Buie. With no chance for re-exposures, accurate models for the surface of Pluto are essential in preventing pictures that are either under- or overexposed.

The Hubble images are a few pixels wide. But through a technique called dithering, multiple, slightly offset pictures can be combined through computer-image processing to synthesize a higher-resolution view than could be seen in a single exposure.

"This has taken four years and 20 computers operating continuously and simultaneously to accomplish," says Buie, who developed special algorithms to sharpen the Hubble data.

The Hubble research results appear in the March 2010 issue of the Astronomical Journal. Buie's science team members are William Grundy of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Eliot Young, Leslie Young, and Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

Buie plans to use Hubble's new Wide Field Camera 3 to make further Pluto observations prior to the arrival of New Horizons.

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