NASA Pluto mission only just beginning

NASA’s Hubble telescope this week got some great pictures of our most distant planet Pluto, showing what space agency researchers called an icy and dark molasses-colored, mottled world. But while the shots were the most detailed yet nabbed by NASA’s telescopes, it is the satellite known as New Horizons that may ultimately steal the Pluto show.

By launching in January 2006, New Horizons launched into space in January 2006 and has been hurtling toward Pluto at about 50,000 mph. Even at that rate the 1,054lb satellite will get it close to the dwarf planet sometime around July 2015.

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Once it is there – or actually within 6,000 miles of the planet and its largest moon, Charon -- New Horizons will take close-up pictures in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The best pictures of Pluto will depict surface features as small as 200 feet (about 60 meters) across, NASA said.

NASA said the spacecraft will look for ultraviolet emissions from Pluto's atmosphere and make the best global maps of Pluto and Charon in green, blue, red and a special wavelength that is sensitive to methane frost on the surface. The satellite will also take spectral maps in the near infrared, offering up details about Pluto's and Charon's surface compositions and locations and temperatures of these materials.

The recent Hubble pictures actually will help NASA decide what it wants to focus New Horizons cameras’ on in the future. The Hubble pictures now show what NASA called a 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, NASA stated.

NASA said the Hubble pictures show that Pluto is not just a ball of ice and rock but a 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 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, NASA stated.

Because of the distance involved, Hubble cannot really get an “up-close” understanding of the actual surface of Pluto. New Horizons will no doubt change that.

Currently the New Horizons satellite is in what NASA calls hibernation until its operators at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory wake it up in May for its annual check up. The satellite was awake in January for 10 days of light maintenance and tracking activities, NASA said.

A couple other interesting New Horizons facts from NASA:

•On April 20, 2010, it will be half as far from the Sun as Pluto will be at the time of the encounter on July 14, 2015.•On Oct. 17, 2010, it will have traveled half the flight time to reach Pluto.

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This story, "NASA Pluto mission only just beginning" was originally published by Network World.

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