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.

25 January 2015

Cerious Predictions

"NASA Dawn Mission encounter with Ceres will be the first time the surface (or atmosphere) of a planet will be imaged for the first time by a spacecraft since Voyager 2 flew past Neptune in 1989. Dwarf planets like Ceres and Pluto/Charon (which will be encountered this July by New Horizons) are the most common type of planet in the solar system - and may be the most common type of planet in the universe. Dawn is the first mission to orbit and study such a body in detail to see how it works and compare it to other planets such as Earth. Dawn will be captured by Ceres' gravity on March 6. We are conducting a series of navigation and rotational characterization observations, each of which will be more exciting than the last, until we commence Survey mapping orbits on June 7 at an altitude of 4900 km (and a resolution of ~0.5 km/pixel), then move down to High Altitude Mapping Orbit on August 8 from 850 km (80 m/pixel), and finally Low Altitude Mapping Orbit on December 13 from 476 km (45 m/pixel). We'll be obtaining Framing Camera imagery in different filters, spectra from a visible-near-IR mapping spectrometer, and elemental compositional information from the Gamma-Ray Neutron Spectrometer. It is going to be a fun year (or two!!)."

The blog note above from Dawn nicely sums up the Ceres encounter, which is now quite literally almost on us.  We are now within the orbit of our Moon if it were orbiting Ceres, and this is very close indeed.  As Dawn's cameras are designed to map at much closer distances we won't be seeing a lot of detail until we get into mapping orbit but will instead slowly peel away Ceres' secrets as we move in on ion thrusters.  

To give a sense of what types of things we might see on Ceres at different stage of the mission, I put together some slides featuring Saturn's moon Dione, the closest 'twin' we have of Ceres.  Dione is rather similar in size to Ceres (Ceres 950~km; Dione 1120~km) [see also last weeks post for comparison shot].  The similar low densities (Dione is ~1.6 times as dense as wear ice, Ceres ~2 times) indicate that both have lots of water ice.  Ceres is a little bit rockier but both are believed to have an outer layer of water ice a 100 kilometers or more thick.  
Reposted from last weeks blog:  Dione as viewed by Cassini at resolutions comparable to Dawn at Ceres.  The center image approximates our view of Ceres in the middle of February, the last image our view during the last week of February.
But Ceres is not going to be Dione.  We may be making too much of the Dione analog, but it is a starting point.  First, Ceres is indeed a planetary object, and as noted above the first time we have explored such a body unresolved before since Voyager in 1989 (and Pluto is next).  Instead, Dione orbits Saturn and has been subject to its influence and that of it's neighboring moons.  I refer to the gravitational tides that power the jets of Enceladus and likely resurfaced much of Dione's leading hemisphere with smooth plains and flattened some  of its impact craters (more on that later, and I discussed some of these aspects in the previous post).  Second, Ceres is much closer to the Sun, which both warms the surface and interior, and makes the ice unstable over long periods.  This later effect, sublimation, can be seen in the northern states during winter as snow both melts and evaporates.  This is an erosive process that can seriously (or Ceriously?) degrade a landscape, as we saw on Callisto in Galileo images.  Callisto is of note because it too is icy on the inside but like Ceres is very dark reflecting only 10% of the Sun's light, contaminated by hydrated silicates and carbon-rich gunk.  (Callisto's global albedo is higher but I refer here to the dark stuff only.)  This similarity might be important.

So, here are some slides showing Dione and Callisto at different resolutions comparable to those expected during the Ceres approach phase.  Parts of Ceres may look like this but probably not.  The images should give us a sense of what types of features will be detectable as we move in, however. 
Views of Dione from Cassini at increasing resolution.  Views show the types of features that are likely to be resolvable as we map Ceres in 2015, including impact craters and fracture networks.  
Views of Callisto from Galileo at increasing resolution.  Views show the types of features that are likely to be resolvable as we map Ceres in 2015, except for a dark icy object undergoing sublimation erosion.  The bottoms view is of one of the ring scarps surrounding the giant impact Valhalla.
Now that the encounter phases of both the Dawn and New Horizons missions to Ceres and Pluto, respectively, have officially begun, and before we actually resolve any geologic features (which for Ceres may be a matter of just days away), I thought I'd venture into more hazardous territory and look ahead to what we might find, focusing this week on Ceres.  

I have been asked several times what we expect (predict?) to see on these small icy worlds orbiting the Sun, but each time I found my self stumped for a credible answer.  We have global maps for most of the icy moons (namely the 17 or so large enough one considered true worlds and not just battered limps; and I've helped produce a few of those as shown in earlier posts . . . )  We have catalogs of surface features and have evidence for almost every major geologic process occurring on at least one of these objects.  So we know what craters, volcanoes, faults, and landslides look like on icy bodies.    What we do't know is in what combination they will occur on either Ceres or Pluto.  Will Pluto and Ceres surprise us with new features and rewrite what we know about ice worlds?  It's very possible, of course.  Both are unique even among ice worlds, Ceres being unusually close to the Sun, and Pluto a large icy world orbiting the Sun at great distance and with 5 known moons of its own.  

Several "space" artists are also trying their hand at the predictive arts.  'streincorp' has a rendering of Ceres on Deviant Art that looks rather like Mars in some ways, without the canyons and river valleys.  Michael Carroll has another interesting view that tries to incorporate the HST and Keck observations, showing arcuate structures and the impact craters likely extending over most of the surface.

Speculation has also focused on whether or not Ceres and Pluto have been warm and active or cold and moribund.  Probably somewhere in between.  It would probably be a surprise if Pluto's geology was as extremely young (features formed in less than 100 million years) as Triton's.  Pluto may have had a violent beginning, having given birth to its system of moons in a violent Charon-forming collision long ago.  Triton on the other hand was completely remade in the violent events associated with being captured by Neptune.  Orbital tides and perhaps collisions with Neptune's original moons essentially melted Triton from the inside, resulting int he extremely contorted young surface we see today.

So, rather than speculate on what Ceres and Pluto look like, perhaps it would be more fruitful to consider what it would mean if we see different sorts of things on those bodies.  It is generally assumed that geologic activity on a planetary body implies there are higher levels of internal heat.  Probably the most compelling discovery would be volcanism (as in melting and eruption onto the surface of ice phases, including water, methane, nitrogen, and various similar compounds).  This would be direct evidence for very warm temperatures on the insides of these bodies.  Heat on either Ceres or Pluto is not likely to come from tidal focus as it does on Europa or Miranda or Triton to name a few.  

We will look for a variety of features, among them volcanoes, which would indicate temperatures hot enough omelet and mobilize water and other ices.  The extent and duration of any such volcanic terrains will tell us much about Ceres thermal history.   Diapirism, which is another name for convection in the solid-state, without large-scale melting, would also probably require considerable heat.   Diapirism is the rising of one layer upward into another, usually in the form of large blobs (quite a technical term, I know!).  Salt domes are perhaps the most common examples here on Earth.  The cantaloupe terrain on Triton is probably a vast diapir field (and one my early findings back in 1993).  The oval domes on Europa may be another example, and the coronae of Miranda may be diapers of upwelling ice on a planetary scale.  Several colleagues have suggested that convection could have occurred within Ceres and might be visible on the surface.  A simple density contrast within the crust, of a dense layer formed over a less dense layer could also trigger overturn.  It turns out hat the scale of such features tells us something about the heat levels and the thickness of the layers, so that if we see this on Ceres it will generate a lot of interest.
Diapiric convection occurs at different scales.  Examples include Triton's cantaloupe terrain, shown above at 350 meters (or Survey orbit) resolution.  The oval cells are 30 to 40 kilometers across, each representing an upwelling dome of ice.
We will also be looking closely at impact craters.  That is my specialty, but we will look at that more closely in a later post.  The key thing is that impact craters form predictable features.  Any alteration totem tells us about how hot the planet got or how eroded it became.  Measurements of crater shapes will be key to unraveling these questions, depending on what we find.

Ceres will be revealed in stages, with major structures coming into focus first.  Large rifts and fractures, the major basins and deep craters will be resolved, in part because of the shadows they cast, giving us an early indication of what type of planetary body we are going to map.  Circles and lines stand out.  Small features like crater chains, narrow fractures, (large) boulders, cliffs, landslides and other erosional processes, will become increasingly apparent as Dawn descends to tighter orbits.  Vesta was revealed in the same way.  Vesta is a fascinating object, but shares many familiar qualities with rocky objects like the Moon.  Ceres will be no less fun, in large part because it is so different from anything we have looked at before: a lone icy object orbiting the Sun.
An attempt to show how Ceres might look in our night sky if it were at the Moon's orbital distance.  Its a simplistic rendering using a digital photo at dusk over New Mexico two years ago.  Ceres is the small disk just left of the Moon.

13 January 2015

Year of the 'Dwarves': Ceres and Pluto Get Their Due

Is it irony or just poetic incongruity that at a gangly 6'4" I should devote much of 2015 working on the two missions that will be mapping the first icy 'dwarf planets' in our Solar System to be explored, Ceres and Pluto?   Having spent the last 30 years using Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini images to map and understand the icy worlds orbiting the giant planets that we have visited so far, you can imagine I'm quite pleased to be involved with the first missions to explore the two largest icy worlds orbiting the Sun!  In 2013 I was nominated and added as a new Science Team member to New Horizons on its way to Pluto, and then this winter asked to continue working on the Dawn Project as we approach the icy asteroid/planet Ceres.

This year we achieve the first exploration of these curious but fascinating objects, but I am still struck by the fact that we are 57 years into the Space Age and we are only now getting to these two bodies, diminutive in size compared to giant Jupiter but large in stature.  These are chief among a group of objects that are smaller than our Moon, orbiting the Sun, and large enough to be planetary in nature but sharing their 'orbital zone' with other similar objects.

iPhone captures of my observations logs of Ceres (bottom left) and Vesta (bottom right), through a 2.4" refractor in 
Buffalo, Summer 1978, a year out of High School and 9 months before Voyager at Jupiter.  
Did I contemplate exploration of either body those cool summer nights?  I'm sure I pointed the thing at Pluto, too, 
knowing it was well out of its range, hoping to record a 'Pluto-photon' on my retina.

The architecture of our Solar System seems to be more complex with each passing year.  In 1992 we discovered that Pluto was not alone and in fact part of a vast belt of smaller icy objects. The Solar System can be said to be constructed of 5 major zones: the rocky Inner Planets, the transitional Asteroid Belt, the Middle Zone of ice and gas-rich giant planets, the Outer Zone of the Kuiper Belt objects, including Pluto, and an Outer-Outer Zone of the Oort Cloud of comets. (We probably need some better names but this gets the point across.)

Ceres and Pluto are the dominant bodies of their two respective regions of the Solar System. Teeming with thousands of small objects, both the Asteroid Belt and the Edgeworth-Kuiper (or just plain Kuiper) Belt are key regions of our celestial neighborhood.  The Asteroid Belt, home of icy Ceres which holds fully 1/3rd its total mass, is the key transition zone between the (relatively) water-poor inner planets and the water-rich outer planets.  Ceres may also be carbon-rich.  Kuiper Belt objects have lots of carbon-rich material and exotic ices, like the methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide that cover Pluto's surface.  This outer zone will tell us a lot about how the Solar System formed.
Ceres, second from the bottom, just above recently visited Vesta, is traditionally
placed among the Inner Planets (many of which are shown above),
but is ice-rich and is a transitional object.
Orbit of Ceres (in blue) within the Asteroid Belt population.

Asteroids visited to date, including Vesta, Dawn's mapping target in 2011.
Ceres is a lot darker than Vesta, as shown here. We will be able to use Dawn imaging rather soon!
The Voyager/Galileo/Cassini missions to the giant Outer (or Middle Zone?) Planets looked at their icy moons in close-up, revealing towering fault scarps, smooth ice volcanoes, impact craters flattened and 10-km-deep, disrupted ice rafts, and jets of water vapor and ice crystals venting into space (all the subject of numerous previous blogs).   When Dawn and New Horizons reach their targets this year, we will see up close for the first time ice worlds not orbiting large planets but orbiting the Sun.  This is a rather important distinction.  We now know that gravitational tides, like the ones that affect Earth's oceans but much more powerful, can radically change an orbiting body's geologic history.  This was a key discovery of the Space Age.  Examples of how tidal forces change worlds include the famous volcanoes wracking Io, but also the faulted and disrupted icy shell of Europa, the complex geology and interior of Ganymede, the icy fractures and vents of Enceladus, and the volcanoes, diapirs, and geysers of Triton.  All three of these icy bodies (and maybe a few more) are believed to be harboring liquid water oceans beneath their frigid surfaces.  Maybe we will find evidence of the same at Ceres, Pluto or both.  A key difference is that tidal forces are weak or negligible at both Ceres and Pluto.

Ceres is most similar in size to several of Saturn's icy moons and may be similar internally as well, being composed of 25% water ice by mass.  Dione is a pretty good match to Ceres, at least in basic properties of size and bulk density.  Dione has signs of past geologic activity in faults and volcanic resurfacing but is not active now.  One thing we have learned exploring the Solar System is to be prepared for anything.  Ceres is unlikely to be another Dione, but Dione will be useful as a benchmark of comparison when we do map Ceres.

Comparisons of Ceres with other prominent icy objects.  Dione is Ceres' closest twin in size and mass.
Pluto and the Moon are shown above for comparison. 
Global map of Dione
How the limited/negligible tidal heating will affect Ceres is unknown, but Ceres is closer to the Sun and warmer than the other ice worlds. This heat combined with radioactive heating and other sources may have resulted in internal convection, surface erosion or other internal activity.  Ceres also looks to be occasionally venting water vapor into space, as detected by the Herschel Space Observatory.  It is theoretically plausible that Ceres may have a liquid water ocean as well.  Whether the venting of water vapor is related to this ocean is unknown, and that would be rather exciting.  What might be hidden within such an ocean would be even more uncertain.  The first priority to to simply assess the geologic history of Ceres and to determine the origin of the venting.  Is it related to volcanoes, fissures, impact craters, or just warm ice vaporizing under the heat of the Sun?  It might be similar to the venting we see on Triton or Enceladus.  Maybe it's something we haven't thought of or seen yet.  We can only find out by mapping the geology, topography, and composition of the surface at high resolution.  We are about to do just that.


Dawn and New Horizons are two very different missions.  I will talk more about New Horizons next month, but in short, the Pluto encounter will be more than 6 months long but will be very fast, much like the Voyager encounter with Neptune in 1989.  Dawn will arrive at Ceres first, beginning in January, and this approach will be quite leisurely by contrast.   Orbit 'capture,' when Dawn is firmly under the gravitational influence of Ceres, will occur around March 6.  Dedicated mapping operations will start some time in late April at resolutions of ~1.5 kilometer per pixel.

Don’t expect lots of images during approach to Ceres, however.  To reach Ceres, the spacecraft must continue ion thrusting all the way in, and we can only point the cameras when the engines are turned off for brief intervals to peak at our target.  That's why we won't be seeing pictures every day!  We can't actually take pictures every day and still get to our target.  We should be getting a set of images once every 1-2 weeks during approach, though, and the science team and those watching with us will be most eager to see what those images tell us as we near our target.  

Once in orbit, we will map Ceres in stages, going down to progressively lower altitudes.   Resolutions will increase from ~400 meters to 140 meters to partial mapping at 35 meters!  Our best map of an icy body is that for Enceladus, which has recently been completed in color at 100 meter resolution, by the author.  For Dione we have a similar map at 250 meter resolution.

[See the series of seriously excellent Ceres blogs by Marc Rayman that describe in detail Dawn's approach and mapping plans.  Kudos to the Mission Team for the fabulous job of getting us to Ceres (and Vesta)!]
Simulated views showing the sorts of things we might see on approach to Ceres this winter.
I will be assisting in the geologic investigations of Ceres in a supporting role, as will many others on the Team.  I was first brought on board Dawn for the Vesta mapping phase in 2011-2012 and led the effort to understand the giant Rheasilvia impact basin discovered by HST at the South Pole, which I discovered was actually two overlapping basins.  (I will also be working to map Pluto and construct topographic maps from stereo images, though for Ceres I will just be using stereo for geology.)   

From a science perspective, I will be most interested in (and my main role) the nature of impact craters on Ceres.  Impact craters record many things about a planets history and its structure.  Impact craters can excavate material buried below the surface and eject it onto the surface to see.  Craters also record the thermal evolution of the interiors of icy bodies.  Ice can creep (that is, deform) if it is too warm, in much the way ice sheets move slowly downhill on Earth.  The warmer the ice layer, the more it will flatten or 'relax.'  Measuring the topography of craters will thus tell us how warm the interior has been.  But first we must go there and see if any craters have indeed relaxed.  Impact craters might also reveal if there is/was an ocean deep inside.  For all of these questions my experience mapping impact craters on the icy satellites of Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus will come to bear.  Comparison with craters on Ganymede, Dione and other moons will be telling.  Crater shape and morphology statistics for the Jovian and Saturnian moons are complete and in hand, ready for use when we map Ceres' craters!

Some of the craters of Dione - the largest is 85 km wide.
Craters also tell us about the population of bodies that formed them.  In both cases, but Pluto and Charon especially, the sizes of the craters we see may tell us the numbers of small bodies that populate the zones both the Asteroid and Kuiper Belts.  I will be assisting on this effort, too, though not leading it.  Much of the crater work comes later when we have mapping orbit data in hand, but first order of business will be to survey the situation on dwarf planet 4 Ceres as we move in and assess what type of craters we see and how they have altered or been altered by the surface.

Color HST image showing dusky marking and a faint bluing near the poles. (STScI)
A new mapped version of the HST color images, compiled by Phil Stooke.
There are some artifacts, such as the curved streaks, but there might be
some 'bluing' at the poles, perhaps due to frost???
We don't know much about Cerean geology at this point.  The HST and Keck images show dusky markings of various shapes, including some dark spots and a bright ring which could be impact basins.  None of these features can be classified yet, however.  The few bright spots might be recent impact craters, but perhaps not (they tend to be craters on icy moons).  Ceres has quite an orbital inclination, almost 11°, but its axis is inclined only a few degrees, and as a result has almost no seasons.  How will the affect the evolution of the surface?  We don't see any obvious polar caps, but we might see some frost deposits in shadowed polar craters.  Speculations among the geologists run towards craters being relaxed, and the possibility of convection in the interior, which might lead to fracturing of the surface.  And of course, what is the source of true venting of water vapor?  It's not nearly as vigorous as Enceladus, but the source should still be mappable on the surface.  Lots to look for!
HST image showing possible bright ring (between 9 and 12 o'clock).
Is this an impact basin or maybe a tectonic feature like the coronae on Miranda?
Circular dark features in other areas may also be impact features, or . . . ?  (STScI)
Movie of HST images of Ceres shows a variety of faint markings. (STScI)
A future post will look at New Horizons and its encounter with Pluto this summer and its family of 5+ moons, including the relatively large Charon.  

08 January 2015

True Colors on Saturn's Icy Moons

One of the most frequently asked questions regarding planetary images is: "Are those the 'natural' colors?"  That's not so easy to answer.  Most imaging cameras, whether old style vidicon TV tubes or the more common CCD instruments have rather different light sensitivities than the human eye.  Thus its not so easy to replicate the apparent brightness we would see.  These cameras also tend to use color filters that don't line up very well with our R-G-B color sensitivity.  Nonetheless we can make an attempt to see what some of these bodies might look like to space travelers.  

Case in point, Cassini at Saturn.  In my previous post I showed some of the 'super' color maps that I recently released of Saturn's icy moons.  These are maps compiled from images acquired in IR, green, and UV filters.  They really bring out the color contrast between geologic materials, especially recently exposed materials like crater and fracture walls, which tend to have stronger UV signatures reflecting larger grains sizes.

Natural Color    -   DIONE   -   Super Color 
Natural Color - ENCELADUS - Super Color 
In this post I show some of the 'natural' versus 'super' color images that Cassini acquired.  These are not at very high resolution, however, mostly in the 1-5 kilometer range.  This is because when Cassini was close to these objects it was moving too fast to acquire the large number of images required to run through all the color filters, so it chose the minimum to accomplish its scientific tasks in the short time available, mostly the IR-Gr-UV sequences (~930 to 570 to 340 nanometers).  This gives the best geologic information.  These sequences were further away and Cassini acquired the full filter sequences.  It turns out that the centers of the R, G, and B filters (~700 to 400 nanometers) on Cassini are fairly close to optimal when attempting to simulate the human view of these bodies.

'Natural Color'

'Super Color'

300-meter-resolution color images of Enceladus, centered on longitude 180°W.

Most of the Saturnian icy satellites can be described as having a grayish tone, with a slight reddish or greenish cast.  This is because the strongest reflections from these surfaces tend to peak in the green-to-red portion of the spectrum.  Color variations on the surface would tend to be rather bland to our eye, though we would likely pick out the stronger features as subtle hue contrasts.  We would likely see the cliffs of Enceladus as pale bluish in tone, not unlike some terrestrial glaciers.  I will try to compile some additional shots in the coming weeks.  Enjoy!