Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The five coolest things learnt about Pluto from NASA’s AMA on Reddit

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has passed Pluto, completing what has been a decade-long journey through our solar system.

The history-making mission will provide valuable data that will give humans greater insight into the dwarf planet.

To celebrate the momentous achievement, a number of scientists involved in the New Horizons program took to reddit to answer questions about the mission in an “Ask me anything” thread.
Here are the five most interesting topics discussed.

Could you hit the ski fields

Despite arriving 72 seconds earlier than expected and missing its aim point by about 70 kilometres, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft fly-by was a success.
On its approach the spacecraft captured an image proving Pluto is not the bland ball of ice people one thought.

Instead, it was discovered the dwarf planet contained dark spots and signs of snow.
This caused one reddit user to ask if they were standing on the surface in a spacesuit what it might feel like.

Post-doc for the New Horizons space team Kelsi Singer said the snow would be vastly different to that of Earth.

“Most likely the frosts deposit pretty much directly on the surface, as the atmosphere is very thin — although it is possible that clouds could form, we haven’t seen any yet,” she said.

“If there was snow, it would be quite frictiony, like skiing on sand, because it is sooooo cold there.
“ It would not be like the snow on Earth, which is actually quite balmy compared to Pluto.”

Pale Blue Dot

As the Voyager 1 space probe headed for the fringes of the solar system on February 14, 1990, the engineers in charge turned it around to capture one last glimpse of Earth.
Taken 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth and approximately 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane, the probe captured an image of our home planet as a tiny speck of light in the distance.
The photo, dubbed the “Pale Blue Dot”, has since been considered one of the most iconic pictures ever captured in space.

With the Pluto fly-by achieved, one reddit user wanted to know if it was possible to turn the New Horizons back to Earth to create a similar image.
Unfortunately, research scientist Stuart Robbins explained this would not be possible.

“The LORRI camera is extremely sensitive and looking back towards Earth would have the sun in the field of view and blow the instrument out,” he wrote.
“Voyager was able to do this because the instruments were on a platform that could move, and the engineers could orient it such that Voyager’s dish acted as a sunshield.”

The next big mission

As the New Horizons space craft had to travel more than four billion kilometres to reach its destination, this journey had been nine years in the making.
With so much time invested, there was an immense amount of public interest and hype around the mission.
One reddit user admitted NASA’s ability to explore the solar system filled him awe and he was eternally grateful for feat that was achieved.
However, as an expected father, he wondered what the next mission would be that could his provide his unborn child with the same sense of wonder.
NASA program scientist Curt Niebur thanked the user for their “great” question before providing an answer.
“The next big mission that can ‘grow up’ with your daughter is the Europa mission,” he said.
“This mission will investigate if Europa and its huge global ocean is habitable.
“Take her to the launch in the early 2020s when she is ~8 years old, and then watch the data come in with her when she is a young teenager.”

Comparisons to the moon landing

When Apollo 11 landed the on the moon on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on the moon.

The feat caused a massive amount of hype and one user was curious how the interest in today’s unmanned mission compared to the moon landing.

NASA program scientist Curt Niebur was quick to respond with an explanation that touched on the use of social media.

“It’s hard to make direct comparisons because the way the public can interact with the missions is so different now,” said Curt.

“Does live coverage of an event on national TV in the 1960s equate with websites and twitter feeds updating minute by minute?

“What I really love about our planetary science missions is that the public can ride along with us, and we want you to join us. These missions are YOUR missions.”
Post-doc for the New Horizons team Amada Zangar also added some her two cents.

“My Mom says everything stopped back in the day, and all three TV channels covered it,” she said.

“Now, public interest is so fractionated. But people have better access to what is going on with the 
internet, and can quickly and easily learn a lot. It’s an interesting trade-off.”

Spot the difference

During this historic fly-by, the New Horizons spacecraft also managed to capture Charon — Pluto’s airless moon.

Charon is located 20 times closer to the dwarf planet than our moon is to Earth and is the same age as Pluto.

However, early images from the mission suggest Pluto’s surface is now newer than Charon’s.
Curious to know the reason behind this, one reddit user asked if there were any theories to explain the differences.

Research Scientist Stuart Robbins said there was two likely reasons which forthcoming data would be help better refine.

“One is that Pluto is larger than Charon, so it can retain more heat and have active geology longer,” he said.

“Another is that Pluto has a tenuous atmosphere, and during the 248-year orbit around the sun, the atmosphere sublimates from one area in sun and is deposited in another in darkness, and then this 
reverses halfway through the orbit.

“This process is very slow, relatively speaking, but so is cratering.”

And if you haven’t seen it ...

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