Pluto New Horizons Update – My Favorite New Place Name

The scientists at JPL are assigning “unofficial” names to various features on Pluto, based on the images recieved from New Horizons. Most of these names will probably be submitted to the IAU Nomenclature Committee in due course, but in the meantime none of the names are considered anything more than provisional. But there’s at least one name I hope sticks.

If you were keeping track of New Horizons as it approached Pluto, you may remember a dark vaguely fish-shaped feature that some dubbed “The Whale”. Well, it has now been dubbed with a new name.  May I present to you… Cthulhu Regio:

cthulhu regio

Cthulhu Regio lies near Pluto’s equator just east of Tombaugh Regio (the so-called “Heart” of Pluto). It is approximately 2,990 kilometers long (1,860 miles), and is probably a much older feature than the adjacent, lighter plains of Tombaugh. Please note the splotchy area just to the right of Cthulhu in the image above.

trombaugh regio mountains

That’s Sputnik Planum and the mountain range now known as Hillary Mones.

Also released by NASA/JPL is an image of Pluto being eclipsed by the Sun.

pluto eclipse

We’re still weeks away from getting the bulk of New Horizons data packets. Most of it is still stored on the spaceship, awaiting the chance to download. Because New Horizons is so far away (signals take about 4 hours to arrive at Earth) and the transmitter is so slow, it will take most of the rest of the year to get everything. Even tho the close encounter is over, theres still much, much more to come.

But just remember… Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. Cthulhu fhtagn! Cthulhu fhtagn!

New Horizons at Pluto

As most everyone knows by now, the NASA/JPL’s New Horizons spacecraft passed by the dwarf planet Pluto six days ago. The images it has sent back are stunningly beautiful.

First off, Pluto itself (all images courtesy of NASA):


Notice anything odd about the surface? As in, what seems to be missing?

Craters. Lots and lots of craters. Thats whats missing.

Consider that Pluto lies at the inner edge of the Kuiper belt, an asteroid field probably larger and more populated than the more familiar asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Consider also that most other non-gaseous outer solar system objects have surfaces that are generally heavily cratered, due to the accumulated impacts of smaller objects over billions and billions of years. The fact that craters are so few here indicates that Pluto’s surface is probably relatively new, only a few hundred million years old. Which means, Pluto is more geologically active than we originally thought. Some process is causing the surface to renew itself, either through active vulcanism or possibly internal heating caused by tidal stress from Pluto and Charon’s orbital dance (remember, Pluto appears to be composed primarily of various ices; it wouldn’t take much heating to periodically melt the surface into a viscous slushie).

Some close up views of Pluto’s surface have also been released.

pluto ice mountains

Those are mountains, and they are composed almost entirely of water ice. They too cannot be more than a few hundred million years old, although it is probable that they are generally older than the smoother surfaces around them.

Moving on to Pluto’s principal moon, Charon:


Again, we’re seeing a general lack of heavy cratering, alhtough the surface here does appear to be more cratered than Charon’s parent planet.

Here’s a good image of the pair, showing once more their relative sizes:

pluto charon

The smaller moons of Pluto also recieved some attention during the flyby, but sadly they were all too far away for detailed images. These are probably the best images we’ll see for the satellites Nix and Hydra:


From what I gather, only about half of the data load that New Horizons recorded has been transmitted back to Earth. In fact, most of the really detailed images of Pluto taken during its closest approach haven’t arrived yet. New Horizons will be transmitting them over the next several weeks, so expect to see more images released in the coming month.

New Horizons will now fly on to another Kuiper Belt object, for an arrival sometime in 2019. There are two objects up for consideration, both of which are much smaller than either Pluto or Charon. A decision as to which of the two objects to target will be made in August, as New Horizons needs to start firing its engines no later than early September.

More details will follow as they become available.

New Horizons Back on Line. UPDATE: New image posted by NASA

New Horizons appears to be working again. As Wired’s website put it, the upcoming encounter made the spacecraft so excited it essentially passed out. But JPL seems to have fixed the problem, and everything looks good for the next week.

Latest images are starting to show features:

pluto july2

And here’s the above laid out as a map. This is all of what we currently know concerning Pluto’s surface details:

pluto map

Both images courtesy of NASA. By this time next week we should be seeing images millions of times clearer than these. Exciting times.


JPL & NASA have released a new color image of Pluto, taken 7/8/2015:

pluto 3

This image is already a huge improvement over the image they released yesterday.  New Horizons is currently 5 Million miles away from Pluto.


New Horizons at Pluto Progression

As most everyone knows now, the New Horizons space craft is approaching Pluto and is expected to have its closest encounter with the dwarf planet on July 14. Already, New Horizons has revealed more details of Pluto than any other instrument to date.


And here’s Pluto and its largest moon Charon, in a montage with images as late as of July 2:


More images to come!