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NASA probe flies past Pluto, world awaits historic images

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Applause by Nasa New Horizons team as countdown to the Pluto flyby ends. Picture sent on twitter by Nasa
Picture sent on twitter by NASA

Washington, In what may necessitate rewriting of science books, NASA’s New Horizons probe — after travelling over 4.8 billion km — on Tuesday flew past the mysterious dwarf planet Pluto on the outermost fringes of the solar system.

Flying past Pluto at a distance of about 12,500 km at around 5 p.m. (Indian standard Time), the probe, launched a decade ago, was expected to beam back key images of Pluto’s surface to Earth in about nine hours — the time it takes the communication to reach Earth from Pluto.

The images will also help scientists explore the mysterious Kuiper Belt — a huge band of planetary debris left over from the solar system’s formation 4.5 billion years ago.

The most dangerous hazards for the probe — flying at a speed of 45,000 km per hour — were dust particles trapped in orbit around Pluto and a strike can cripple the spacecraft, scientists said, but added that such a risk was very low.

The first images will debut on Facebook-owned photo-sharing website Instagram, NASA has announced.

“We made an editorial decision to give the world a sneak peek of the image on Instagram,” NASA social media manager John Yembrick told wired.com.

On board the New Horizons are seven sophisticated science instruments and the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.

NASA was expecting a dark grey icy planet but the probe found it is red and appeared to be oxidized like Mars.

Earlier, the New Horizons probe settled one of the most basic questions about Pluto — its size. Mission scientists have found Pluto to be 2,370 km in diameter, somewhat larger than many prior estimates.

Images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on board the New Horizon probe were used to make this determination.

The result confirms that Pluto is larger than all other known solar system objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, the US space agency said in a statement.

“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon from Washington University in St Louis.

Pluto’s newly-estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher.

Measuring Pluto’s size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere.

Its largest moon Charon lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes.

New Horizons observations of Charon confirm its previous estimated size of 1,208 km across.

Two other moons – Nix and Hydra – were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. Nix is estimated to be about 35 km across while Hydra is roughly 45 km across.

These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.

Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx, are smaller and fainter than Nix and Hydra and are harder to measure, the US space agency said.

(IANS)

 

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NASA Explore Technology To Build Future Homes Made of Fungi For Moon, Mars

Upon arrival, by unfolding that basic structure and simply adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat

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NASA
Keeping that in mind, the myco-architecture project out of NASA Ames Research Center in California is prototyping technologies that could "grow" habitats on the Moon, Mars and beyond out of life - specifically, fungi and the unseen underground threads that make up the main part of the fungus, known as mycelia. Pixabay

Instead of habitats made of metal and glass, NASA is exploring technologies that could grow structures out of fungi to become our future homes in the stars, and perhaps lead to more sustainable ways of living on Earth as well.

Creating a livable home for future astronauts means doing more than growing a roof to go over their heads. Astronauts will need to have all their basic needs met, just like on Earth, and face the additional challenges of living in a harsh environment on a distant world, the US space agency said in a statement.

Keeping that in mind, the myco-architecture project out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California is prototyping technologies that could “grow” habitats on the Moon, Mars and beyond out of life – specifically, fungi and the unseen underground threads that make up the main part of the fungus, known as mycelia.

“Right now, traditional habitat designs for Mars are like a turtle – carrying our homes with us on our backs – a reliable plan, but with huge energy costs,” said Lynn Rothschild, the principal investigator on the early-stage project.

“Instead, we can harness mycelia (vegetative part of a fungus) to grow these habitats ourselves when we get there”. Ultimately, the project envisions a future where human explorers can bring a compact habitat built out of a lightweight material with dormant fungi that will last on long journeys to places like Mars.

Upon arrival, by unfolding that basic structure and simply adding water, the fungi will be able to grow around that framework into a fully functional human habitat – all while being safely contained within the habitat to avoid contaminating the Martian environment.

Mycelia are tiny threads that build complex structures with extreme precision, networking out into larger structures like mushrooms.
With the right conditions, they can be coaxed into making new structures – ranging from a material similar to leather to the building blocks for a Mars habitat.

NASA
Instead of habitats made of metal and glass, NASA is exploring technologies that could grow structures out of fungi to become our future homes in the stars, and perhaps lead to more sustainable ways of living on Earth as well. Pixabay

That last layer of mycelia is what organically grows into a sturdy home, first activated to grow in a contained environment and then baked to kill the lifeforms – providing structural integrity and ensuring no life contaminates Mars and any microbial life that’s already there. Even if some mycelia somehow escaped, they will be genetically altered to be incapable of surviving outside the habitat, said NASA.

Mycelia could also be used for water filtration and biomining systems that can extract minerals from wastewater – another project active in Rothschild’s lab – as well as bioluminescent lighting, humidity regulation and even self-generating habitats capable of healing themselves. And with about 40% of carbon emissions on Earth coming from construction, there’s an ever-increasing need for sustainable and affordable housing here as well.

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The harsh environments of the Moon and Mars will require new ways of living – growing homes instead of building them, mining minerals from sewage instead of rock. “But by turning to the elegant systems of our own natural world, we can design solutions that are green and sustainable. Whether on distant worlds or our own ever-changing Earth, fungi could be what brings us boldly into the future,” said NASA. (IANS)