Given two years left to live in 1963. Revolutionized physics for more than half a century.
Throwback to a day, not too long ago, with a lot more summer to it.
Sitting all by yourself on a Tuesday summer morning, on a blanket folded on top of a rock, reading a book and looking out at this scenery: severely underrated.
It’s only a year and a half since you passed away and today you would’ve turned 71 years young.
Also, when I dug up this old photo of you it became immediately apparent where I’ve inherited my innate interest in the latest tech from. 😉
Sometimes days, or even a week or two, can pass without your thoughts wandering. Then something happens, perhaps something seemingly insignificant to others, which will remind you of someone who used to be close to you in your life. That’s when you realize that you never really get over some things.
But you learn to live with them. ❤️
This month (March 2016), in the journal Science, New Horizons scientists have authored the first comprehensive set of papers describing results from last summer’s Pluto system flyby. These detailed papers completely transform our view of Pluto and reveal the former “astronomer’s planet” to be a real world with diverse and active geology, exotic surface chemistry, a complex atmosphere, puzzling interaction with the sun and an intriguing system of small moons.
Here’s a breakdown of what we’ve learned about Pluto:
1. Pluto has been geologically active throughout the past 4 billion years. The age-dating of Pluto’s surface through crater counts has revealed that Pluto has been geologically active throughout the past 4 billion years. Further, the surface of Pluto’s informally-named Sputnik Planum, a massive ice plain larger than Texas, is devoid of any detectable craters and estimated to be geologically young – no more than 10 million years old.
2. Pluto’s moon Charon has been discovered to have an ancient surface. As an example, the great expanse of smooth plains on Charon is likely a vast cryovolcanic flow or flows that erupted onto Charon’s surface about 4 billion years ago. These flows are likely related to the freezing of an internal ocean that globally ruptured Charon’s crust.
3. Pluto’s surface has many types of terrain. The distribution of compositional units on Pluto’s surface – from nitrogen-rich, to methane-rich, to water-rich – has been found to be surprisingly complex, creating puzzles for understanding Pluto’s climate and geologic history. The variations in surface composition on Pluto are unprecedented elsewhere in the outer solar system.
4. Pluto’s atmosphere is colder than we thought. Pluto’s upper atmospheric temperature has been found to be much colder (by about 70 degrees Fahrenheit) than had been thought from Earth-based studies, with important implications for its atmospheric escape rate. Why the atmosphere is colder is a mystery.
5. We know what Pluto’s atmosphere is made of. The New Horizon spacecraft made observations of sunlight passing through Pluto’s atmosphere. We see absorption features that indicate an atmosphere made up of nitrogen (like Earth’s) with methane, acetylene and ethylene as minor constituents.
6. We might have an idea for how Pluto’s haze formed. For first time, a plausible mechanism for forming Pluto’s atmospheric haze layers has been found. This mechanism involves the concentration of haze particles by atmospheric buoyancy waves, created by winds blowing over Pluto’s mountainous topography. Pluto’s haze extends hundreds of kilometers into space, and embedded within it are over 20 very thin, but far brighter, layers.
7. There isn’t much dust around Pluto. Before the flyby, there was concern that a small piece of debris (even the size of a grain of sand) could cause great damage to (or even destroy) the spacecraft. But the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (an instrument on the New Horizons spacecraft) only counted a single dust particle within five days of the flyby. This is similar to the density of dust particles in free space in the outer solar system – about 6 particles per cubic mile – showing that the region around Pluto is, in fact, not filled with debris.
8. Pluto’s atmosphere is smaller than we expected. The uppermost region of Pluto’s atmosphere is slowly escaping to space. The hotter the upper atmosphere, the more rapid the gasses escape. The lower the planet’s mass, the lower the gravity, and the faster the atmospheric loss. As molecules escape, they are ionized by solar ultraviolet light. Once ionized, the charged molecules are carried away by the solar wind. As more Pluto-genic material is picked up by the solar wind, the more the solar wind is slowed down and deflected around Pluto. So – the net result is a region (the interaction region), which is like a blunt cone pointed toward the sun, where the escaping ionized gasses interact with the solar wind. The cone extends to a distance about 6 Pluto radii from Pluto toward the sun, but extend behind Pluto at least 400 Pluto radii behind Pluto – like a wake behind the dwarf planet.
9. Pluto’s moons are brighter than we thought. The high albedos (reflectiveness) of Pluto’s small satellites (moons) – about 50 to 80 percent – are entirely different from the much lower reflectiveness of the small bodies in the general Kuiper Belt population, which range from about 5 to 20 percent. This difference lends further support to the idea that these moons were not captured from the general Kuiper Belt population, but instead formed by the collection of material produced in the aftermath of the giant collision that created the entire Pluto satellite system.
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Summary of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Fascinating stuff and they’re not even close to finished with the data yet…
I just want to say that right at this moment, as I’m writing this, a space probe has just travelled a total of 6 billion kilometers so it can rendezvous with 4.5 billion year old comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, one of the remaining ancient building blocks of our solar system, and the probe is right now entering orbit around it as the first man made object ever to orbit a comet. Some time after completing the orbital maneuvers it will release a lander (Philae) which will touch down on the surface of the comet as the first ever man made object to land on a comet. The research gleaned from Rosetta and it’s companion Philae will help shed even further light on the origins of the solar system and how, eventually, planet Earth came to be.
And we can all follow all of these historical achievements in real time on the internet. Isn’t this at least a little bit cool?
(Picture of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as the Rosetta probe was approaching it, some 405 million kilometers from Earth. Photo courtesy of ESA.)
We get this a lot. There are a million answers (our favorite short one is “Nothing to hide? Really?”) but here’s something thoughtful and comprehensive to share with a friend the next time it comes up. The short version? None of the freedom and progress we’ve won over the past century would have been possible without the freedom to change things (starting with our own lives first) that privacy gives us.