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New Horizons finds possible ice volcanoes on Pluto

9 November 2015 Astronomy Now

From possible ice volcanoes to twirling moons, NASA’s New Horizons science team is discussing more than 50 exciting discoveries about Pluto at this week’s 47th Annual Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences. The two cryovolcano candidates are large features measuring tens of miles across and several miles high.

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New Horizons’ manoeuvres put it on course for post-Pluto rendezvous

8 November 2015 Astronomy Now

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, speeding toward deeper space at more than 32,000 miles per hour, has successfully performed a series of targeting manoeuvres that set it on course for a January 2019 encounter with Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69. This ancient body is more than a billion miles beyond Pluto. The propulsive manoeuvres were the most distant trajectory corrections ever performed by any spacecraft.

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Scientists predict that rocky planets formed from ‘pebbles’

27 October 2015 Astronomy Now

Using a new process in planetary formation modelling, where planets grow from tiny bodies called “pebbles,” Southwest Research Institute scientists can explain why Mars is so much smaller than Earth. This same process also explains the rapid formation of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, as reported earlier this year.

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New Horizons team publishes first research paper on Pluto findings

15 October 2015 Astronomy Now

The New Horizons team described a wide range of findings about the Pluto system in its first research paper published today — just three months after NASA’s historic first exploration of the dwarf planet. New Horizons has revealed a degree of diversity and complexity on Pluto and its moons that few expected in the frigid outer reaches of the solar system.

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Comet’s tail may shed light on solar wind heating

14 October 2015 Astronomy Now

We can’t see the wind, but we can learn about it by observing things that are being blown about. And by studying changes in a comet’s bright tail of gas and ions, scientists are on the trail to solving two big mysteries about the solar wind — the supersonic outflow of electrically charged gas from the Sun’s million-degree upper atmosphere, or corona.

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New Horizons finds blue skies and water ice on Pluto

8 October 2015 Astronomy Now

The first colour images of Pluto’s atmospheric hazes returned by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft last week — seen here backlit by the Sun — reveal that the hazes are blue. Also, in a second significant finding, New Horizons has detected numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on the dwarf planet.

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Pluto’s big moon Charon reveals a colourful & violent history

2 October 2015 Astronomy Now

At half the diameter of Pluto, Charon is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the solar system. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has returned the best colour and the highest resolution images yet of Charon, showing a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-colour variations and more — all evidence of a surprisingly complex and violent history.

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Latest New Horizons images of Pluto and Charon delight and amaze

10 September 2015 Astronomy Now

New close-up images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveal a bewildering variety of surface features that have scientists reeling because of their range and complexity. Images downlinked in the past few days reveal new features as diverse as possible dunes, nitrogen ice flows oozing out of mountainous regions onto plains, and even networks of valleys possibly carved by material flowing over Pluto’s surface.

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NASA’s New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

28 August 2015 Astronomy Now

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic 14 July flyby of the Pluto system. The target is a 30-mile-wide Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto. New Horizons expects to reach the object, nicknamed “PT1” (Potential Target 1), on 1 January 2019.

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Largest planets likely formed first from icy “planetary pebbles”

20 August 2015 Astronomy Now

Researchers at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Queen’s University in Canada have unravelled the mystery of how Jupiter and Saturn likely formed using computer simulations. The discovery, which changes our view of how all planets might have formed, also suggests that the gas giants in the solar system probably formed before the terrestrial planets.