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 . . .


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ThreeDogs said...

A very interesting article.

I wonder if it would be an good idea to change the grading from hot-interesting-cool into graduations of interesting. For example: not interesting, interesting and very interesting.
I think this would also help non-americans who are not used to the school slang.