12 July 2015


Pluto image acquired July 11, 2015

Pluto minus 2 days.  It has been an amazing approach to Pluto over the past two weeks, as those of you following the mission on the web have shared.  This will be very short as I am quite busy, but for me it is mind boggling how strange Pluto seems, as you can see for yourself in the above press released image.  I can almost imagine myself standing on the bridge of the Enterprise approaching an alien world for the first time.  "Fascinating!"  So much of the surface seems unfamiliar.  Speculation among scientists and web followers has been abundant and I won't indulge myself here, but rather celebrate how insanely wondrous of celestial neighborhood is.  Everywhere we look in the Solar neighborhood we see something different, and very often, something we did not expect.  Clearly Pluto fits the later, and even Ceres, though it looks like an older cratered world, has enough surprises to keep us working for years to come (odd-shaped mountains, odd-shaped craters, bright spots).  Even the Saturn system has new surprises (soon to be revealed).  All tell us important clues to how the Solar System came to be and how it has evolved.  Perhaps the most important benefit has been philosophical. The past 50 years of Space Exploration have been a great experience to live through, and offer an opportunity to look up from our troubled times here on Earth and see something greater.  Enjoy Pluto . . . !

New Horizons trajectory as of July 12 midday.
Nothing else gives a sense of how close we are to target.

Below is an image of Triton taken on approach by Voyager 2 in August 1989 at a pixel scale of ~4 kilometers.  This was the first Voyager image to more clearly show recognizable basic elements of Tritonian geology (though much still remains mysterious to this day), before it's closer pass on August 25 of that year.  We may peel away some of Pluto's deeper mysteries in a similar way.

18 June 2015

One Month

Pluto!  June 16, 2015: 4 weeks to go - the final month.  To mark that milestone, New Horizons has just released a new video about Pluto and the mission on its main website.  Oh sure, I am in it so I'm rather pleased about that, but it is a very high quality production and most importantly highlights the people behind the mission.  Let me just say up front that my contributions to New Horizons thus far have been minimal.  True I did serve on several key panels back in 1999-2000 that helped decide how we would explore the planetary system we know as Pluto and it is gratifying to see that process come to fruition.  In later years I helped advocate for and design dedicated stereo observations to map topography on Pluto and Charon, prepared new global maps of Triton and Saturn's icy moon that will support interpretation of Pluto and its moons, and finally was added onto the project a few years ago as a member of the Team.  The years of planning to prepare the long series of observations that began in January and will reach their climax in 4 weeks was the work of a Team, some of whom were or are now friends (I trust) and some of whose names I hope will become more familiar very soon.  They are too numerous to list here, but they will have earned their place in history.  Happily, many of them are featured in this new video.

The New Horizons project Team is quite busy making sure everything goes according to plan (and post-encounter activities will be no less busy).  The Science Team is currently busy searching approach images for rings and more moons (none yet), making the first low-resolution maps of the surface to chart out the gross brightness patterns and major provinces, looking at the properties of the known moons, and will soon begin to detect the surface components on Pluto and Charon.  These results are regularly posted to the main NH website.  I don't have anything to do just yet; I arrive at APL on the 30th and my job starts in earnest about 12 days out (around July 2) as Pluto starts its final two rotations before closest approach.  Then we start to build piece-by-piece the ultimate highest resolution maps of Pluto and Charon and a few days before encounter day on the 14th start work on the first topographic maps of the surface.

I will also be bring my 30 years of experience mapping other icy worlds in the Outer Solar System, now including ice-rich Ceres, another small planetary body orbiting the Sun.  Whether it proves of any value remains to be seen, of course.  Pluto may look like nothing we have seen before.  Triton bears little resemblance to the menagerie of icy bodies orbiting the other giant planets, and Pluto may be yet another odd-ball.  That is why I have been reticent to speculate on Pluto's appearance.  I think it fair to assume that mighty Charon may look generally similar tho different in detail to Dione and Tethys (which are similar in size); heavily cratered with maybe some fractures or smooth areas.  But Pluto?  While it is logical to expect some impact craters and some erosion (due to the seasonal migration of volatile frosts) I was not very successful predicting much about Ceres, so I will defer to Pluto's mysteries.

As we prepare for Pluto, my colleagues and I on Dawn are also very busy working with the new 400-meter resolution Survey mapping images of Ceres.  To be sure, we see some spectacular impact craters and albedo deposits and we can now resolve quite a few very interesting and perhaps surprising surface features (more on those later).  This was hoped for and even expected, but the new images are also reinforcing another perception.  Namely, that some of the "features" we thought we "saw" at low resolution during approach and thought were significant, such as large canyons and lobate scarps, either do not in fact exist or are cryptic or rather uninteresting.  Many of the images of icy satellites based on Voyager are at resolutions comparable to our approach images of Ceres.  Our views from Galileo and Cassini in the Jupiter and Saturn systems increased our resolutions by 100+ fold and the places look very different and vastly more complex and interesting.  The resolutions we are getting from Dawn at Ceres now and will get this summer and fall when we get down to 150 and 40 meters are and will be an eye opener, as will the 250- to 100-m resolution Pluto images.
The 80's-style metal hair-band staying at our hotel during a recent New Horizons team meeting in Maryland.
Just checking if you are paying attention!
As if Pluto and Ceres weren't enough to keep one busy, I've been working on some new findings on one of Enceladus' neighboring moons.  Our team is working to map and understand these in preparation for publication and we hope to report them here in a week or so.   Many events and projects are happening very fast this Summer and I am 'proud, happy and thrilled' to be a small part of them, but there are times when one feels like you are riding in a barrel down the Niagara River with only a teaspoon to steer with (I grew up in Buffalo, just a 20 minute drive from the mighty cataracts). It's a wild ride, with the greatest excitement to come in a few weeks, but wow am I gonna need a vacation by December . . .

16 May 2015

Two Months!

[Edited May 29]

Two months, Eight and half weeks, 58 days.  It's a concept almost too difficult to grasp: we are on Pluto's doorstep.   Just 9 years ago I witnessed the launch of New Horizons (the only launch I've ever witnessed in person; although I did some model rocket launches as a kid I don't think they count).  And 85 years since Pluto was discovered, just weeks after the Great Stock Market Crash.  Think of the monumental changes here on Earth since that time.  How time flies.  

The idea that the first Pluto encounter will happen in just 2 months is very exciting.  The encounter started in January when distant observations began, but for geologists like myself, the Pluto encounter will be a very short thing, about 6 days long.  That is the period of Pluto's rotation (or the length of a Pluto "day").  It is the time over which we will see each side of Pluto at its best, including the moments of closet approach on July 14, when we see one side of Pluto (and is large moon Charon) at better than 250 meter resolution (and parts as good as 100 meters!).  Us geology types need to see volcanoes, fractures, craters, and that requires resolutions of better than 10 kilometers, which we will likely start seeing during the final Pluto rotation begins on July 8.  The largest craters or fracture systems may be visible before then.

We have not and will not be idle on approach, however.   Features on Pluto movie.   New Horizons is already spotting features, including a possible polar cap and a bright spot near the equator.  Bright spots often tend to be recently formed impact craters, say in the past 100 million years or less, but we will have to wait till July to know.  We may even see linear features like the dark bands on Europa during our approach.  The plucky probe is routinely monitoring the Pluto system and can start searching for unknown moons, having now observed all 5 of the known moons.  If there are any rings, we could find out sometime in June or July.

What will I be doing in July?  Besides being in residence at the JHU Applied Physics Lab in Maryland for the encounter, I will also be helping lead the cartography effort, registering high-resolution images to the surface of Pluto and its large moon Charon to produce the first preliminary maps of these bodies.  These maps will be updated as the data are slowly returned to Earth from great distance (the radio signal takes 4.4 hours to get back to Earth!)  These maps will look a little bit like the map of Triton we made from Voyager 2 images acquired in 1989.  There will be a north polar gap and one side will be kind of fuzzy, but who's complaining!  I will also be using stereo to map the surfaces of both bodies, and from that we plan to get the best topographic maps of the heights of things on Pluto and Charon!

Voyager 2 map of Triton; a preview of the kind of global map we can expect for Pluto (and Charon), only better.
Pluto/Charon science I'll be most interested in will be crater morphology.  Craters can tell us about what is buried under the surface, how hot the interior has been, and other interesting things, which I'll try to blog on soon.  After all, impact craters are the one geologic feature we can (almost) guarantee we will find on Pluto and Charon.  I will also help those looking for volcanoes or tectonic structures.  Most ice worlds also have some fault scarps and fractures, but until now we have mapped only icy bodies orbiting in close proximity to large planets, which can impose strong gravitational stresses on moon interiors.  Pluto and Ceres both are the first examples of ice-rich worlds we have visited that orbit the Sun alone, uninfluenced by a large parent body.  "Fascinating."

Which brings me to Ceres.  We have now completed the observation phase called RC3, "rotation characteristics 3," in which Dawn observed the entire surface of the dwarf planet from the north, the south and over the equator.  One of those sequences has been released in movie form, allowing everyone to see many of things we have seen from RC3.  I can't say too much about any of these yet, except that the team is pouring over the data, which has a pixel resolution of 1.25 kilometers.  This is comparable to what Voyager saw during its tour of the icy moons back in the 1980s.  The next mapping phases in June, August and November will bring us Galileo and Cassini class imaging at better than 400 meters resolution, and ultimately down to ~38 meters.

A still from the recently released rotation movie of ice-rich Ceres.  The complex and still enigmatic Bright Spots are at center.  Faint arcuate troughs also cross the scene.  These emanate from a large impact basin to the south.
I'm still not sure what these features all mean.  It recalls the Galileo and Cassini experience where we saw entirely new features when we got down to smaller than 1 kilometer resolutions.  It was like we had never seen Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Dione or any of the other icy moons before!  Much will become clearer when we get to lower altitude on Ceres.  I am looking at crater morphologies on Ceres, measuring diameters, looking at ejecta, including some of the bright and dark ray patterns you can see in the rotation movie, and looking at pit craters, too.  Right now we are mostly working to inventory what is on the surface, formulating hypotheses to test when the next data arrive in June.   We are very busy!

Pages from my Planetary Scrapbook, 1971-1980.
There were so many Buffalo News newspaper clippings I had to overlap them.
Which gets me to the end of today's rant.  When time permits (which is scant these days) I monitor the buzz on forums such as Unmannedspaceflight, which is an open forum for those interested in the Solar System.  Some have noted a reticence on some projects and science teams to be more forthcoming in data release or science discussion.  There is some truth to that.  Some flights are better than others (I won't name names), and it is something I can't change.   Dawn is pretty darn good, and New Horizons will release all images in browse format, within 48 hours of acquisition, for example.  I am part of the Mariner and Voyager generation, where the only outlet for new planetary information and images was the newspaper and the 3 networks' nightly news (which might have a 2 minute report on the day after encounter), followed some days later by the weekly news magazines of the time.  That was it.  I still have my newspaper clippings from those days.  No blogs, twitter, websites, videos or anything.  And a year later the data were archived for general use.  The science teams have an obligation to themselves and the public.  The first is to get the data in suitable format so that the data products that are released are of good quality and do not have incorrect orientations or colors (recalling the false blue skies from the first Viking lander image); and to avoid premature speculations that might be difficult to retract later on.  It takes a few days to prepare good stuff.  Patience young padawans . . . the data returned from these fantastic missions belongs to all of us, supported by the public through their taxes and part of the national trust.  The mission and science teams are working hard to get the best products out for everyone to enjoy and to join in the analysis and speculations.  These new worlds will be ours to enjoy all Summer!

26 March 2015

Ceres Gets Real: Pluto Lurks

Although we are still along way from understanding this fascinating little body, Ceres is finally becoming a real planet with recognizable features!  And thats kinda cool.  The now-released images from February show features roughly 4 kilometers across (2.2 miles for the americans), including numerous well-preserved impact craters.  These are distinct and clearly show central peaks superficially similar to what we observe on Dione and Tethys.  They appear to be about as deep as expected, but measurements of their depths will be done on higher resolution data.  Some circular features look rather like flattened craters, but again as to origins (whether relaxed by deformation of ice or by erosion or infilling), caution is in order as we are often fooled at these low resolutions.
Global map of Ceres at 4 km/pixel (this is my version of the map that was released on March 2,
and is NOT an official map product).  
So, Ceres has impact craters, some of which could be modified by geologic processes.  It might also have some tectonic features, though it is still too early to be sure of their extent, age, or importance.    It even has those enigmatic bright-spots (sorry no speculations at this point!), which hint at the possibility of more water-ice related features at higher resolution.  All-in-all, though, it is nice to finally have a sense of Ceres as a body, even if that view is rather fuzzy at the moment.  This bodes very well for the approaching mapping campaign.

Although there are still suggestions of linear features in the new images, our experience with similar-sized icy worlds orbiting Saturn is that only the most dramatic canyons are readily apparent at the current resolution.  Tectonic features like simple fault scarps or cracks won't be obvious until April (we have spent most of March on the dark side of Ceres at some distance thrusting the ion engines in order to achieve our first mapping orbit on April 22).  Indeed, many of Tethys' smaller scale fractures require resolutions down to 100 meters, which we won't see at Ceres till this Summer.  Indeed it is likely that Ceres may not betray many of its most interesting ice-related features till we get down to our formal mapping altitudes where resolutions will be a kilometer or less.

The most intriguing linear features are arcuate grooved radiating from a large southern impact basin roughly 250 kilometers across.  Although these could be tectonic, the arcuate shape is consistent with secondary impact features related to the formation of the basin.  The key test will occur when we get 1-km data or better and can examine the detailed morphology.

Here are some Cassini images of Tethys, shown similar to our views of Ceres in mid- and late-April.  By the last week of April we should be acquiring images at resolutions of 1.3 kilometers, although at different phase angles as this 2-week-long RC3 phase goes to completion.

Tethys at 1.3 km/pixel (similar to Ceres during RC3).  Smooth regions, many craters, and the largest fracture system, Ithaca Chasma are all very recognizable but the small fractures and crater chains across the surface are not yet apparent.
Dione at 1.3 km/pixel (similar to Ceres during RC3).  This exquisite image shows many features, including the relaxed craters at upper right (with prominent central peaks), the large 350-km-wide impact basin at top, the multiple fracture sets at left, and the smooth plains at right.
There are times in any great adventure when the pulse quickens just a little and the stomach tightens up a notch.  I think I have finally reached that point with Pluto.  Two weeks ago we passed the 1-AU point.  One AU is the Earth-Sun distance (and yes the tiny Earth does orbit the gigantic Sun), which isn't much more than an anthropomorphic milestone.  But we are also now well passed the half-way  point between Neptune's orbit and our destination.  After 9 years of travel (not to mention a decade or more of work to get New Horizons approved, built and launched), it gives one a sense that we are really on final approach.  We have passed to second-to-last signpost on the long trek.  The last significant sign-post will be when we reach the distance where our high-resolution camera gets images roughly equivalent to the Hubble Space telescope, sometime in May.  We cannot give a precise date for this as the HST and LORRI imaging systems have different optical characteristics and whatnot.  The Project will let us know when we cross this threshold.  Still it will be the real mark that we are into new territory.

For the geology types out there (self included), we will not be getting resolvable data until a few weeks before arrival.  That doesn't mean we won't be doing anything.  New Horizons is in Approach Phase, during which the Pluto system is under routine monitoring.  This will allow us to track all the known moons to get precise orbits and monitor brightness changes to determine rotation periods and such.  We are also looking for new moons and even ring systems, if they exist.  So we will be very busy during approach doing things that Earth-bound telescopes can't do as well.  I will have more on Pluto later this Spring.

02 February 2015

Ceres Coming Into View

It's begun!  Dawn is on approach to Ceres, the largest of the asteroids, and is starting to resolve features. We have now seen two sets of images, one on January 11 the other on January 26.  Indistinct curved marking and subtle shadings are apparent.  Some markings look like craters, others like fracture or fault scarps.  The fact that these features are not obvious at this point is intriguing.  Perhaps they will prove to be like features we are familiar with on icy satellites of Saturn, the objects most similar to Ceres in size and composition.  Perhaps not.

The best Ceres images from January are at best ~20-22 kilometers resolution.  Lots of features are hidden to us at this scale.  Nonetheless here is a reprojected version one of the new images, one unmarked, the other marked by what appear to be scarps or topographic features, all of which at this point seem to suggest a chain of craters or an elongate trough.  We should know by mid-February whether that is correct.
A simple sketch map, likely to be wrong, of some basic features on a reprojected map of the 26 Jan image of Ceres.  Is that curved feature real?  A comparable map of Tethys is shown to right.
February will be revealing.  We should have a fair idea by the end of this month of the basic nature of Ceres' surface and a crude outline of its geology, at least if our experiences with Voyager and Cassini at Saturn are any guide.  As the images of Saturn's moons show, we can learn some basic facts from the expected Ceres images, which will be as good as ~4 kilometers per pixel by the end of the month.

To get a sense of what the new images in February might tell us about Ceres, I've dug up some Cassini images of Saturn's icy moons.  Take Tethys.  Famous for its really large and deep impact basin Odysseus and nearly globe-girdling fault valley Ithaca Chasma.  Odysseus is ~430 km wide and at least 8 kilometers deep.  Several other deep craters make Tethys a useful comparison.  Ithaca Chasma is a prominent fracture system 75 to 115 kilometers wide, several kilometers deep and nearly circles the globe.  Both features are prominent and possible analogs for what we might see on Ceres.

Inspired by a posting on UMSF, I put together a montage of Tethys images at resolutions and viewing geometries roughly comparable to what we expect at key points in the approach to Ceres this February (These are not exact duplicates but close enough to give a sense of what we might see).
The great tectonic trench Ithaca Chasma would be visible in the 12-Feb images, and possibly on the 3rd.  The large impact basin Odysseus is the large circular feature in the 19-Feb scaled image, but it is interesting that even thigh more than 8 kilometers deep, it does not convey a sense of enormous depth in these views.
What will we be doing with these February data?  The most obvious thing will be an inventory of the types of features we can identify with confidence.  This will give us a sense of the type of work we can do when mapping really starts in April.

After the rush to Ceres in February we enter a month-long period where our mapping will not improve.  During all of March Dawn will perform an intricate celestial dance as it maneuvers toward its first high-altitude mapping orbit.  This first "Survey Orbit" will allow us to map at ~1.3 km/pixel but it will take most of April to get there as we slowly spiral in.   [See Chief Engineer Dr. Marc Rayman's blogs detailing Dawn's trajectory and mapping phases. ]  With these mapping data in hand we can start cataloging and measuring geologic features to test our hypotheses of Ceres' geologic and thermal history and its internal composition.  Is there evidence of internal heat, either now or in the past?  Is Ceres partly made of water ice and is that ice found mostly in the upper mantle?  Compositional mapping will also start.  We should also get our first indications of the gravity field of Ceres, but the real work of gravity mapping must wait till be get to lower altitudes.

Tethys at 1.3 kilometers/pixel (Cassini), roughly equivalent to Survey Orbit mapping quality.  

During March, however, Dawn will be a little bit further from Ceres than we are on 25-February.  We will also be returning fewer images.  These will include some high-phase crescent images, though, which will be better suited to searching for outgassing and vapor clouds around Ceres (if any are to be found).  These are the type of images that show off the Enceladus jets so well.

All this is great fun, but the real action begins in late April when we start global mapping of Ceres at scales comparable to the other icy worlds of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune, and begin to resolve the smaller-scale geologic features that tell us about impact, volcanic, tectonic and erosional processes going on at Ceres.  It seems appropriate that we should begin our mapping of Ceres, named for the roman goddess of agriculture and fertility, in the springtime (at least in the northern hemisphere).  We should then be mapping features 1 to 1.5 kilometers across, similar to Voyager 2 mapping of much of Ganymede and Triton.