Tuesday May 22, 2018
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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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SpaceX to Launch Twin NASA Water Cycle Tracker Satellites

The satellites are scheduled to launch at 3.47 p.m. EDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California

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SpaceX to Launch Twin NASA Water Cycle Tracker Satellites
SpaceX to Launch Twin NASA Water Cycle Tracker Satellites. Pixabay

On its way to deploy five Iridium Next communications satellites on Tuesday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will also launch twin NASA satellites that will monitor Earth’s water cycle, marking a unique rideshare arrangement.

The satellites are scheduled to launch at 3.47 p.m. EDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California. (This corresponds to 1.17 a.m. Wednesday India time), NASA said.

The two Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On mission (GRACE-FO) spacecraft will follow each other in orbit around Earth, separated by about 220 km.

On liftoff, the Falcon 9 first-stage engines will burn for approximately two minutes and 45 seconds before shutting down at main engine cutoff (MECO).

The Falcon 9’s first and second stages will separate seconds later. Then, the second-stage engine will ignite for the first time (SES1) and burn until the vehicle reaches the altitude of the injection orbit, 490 km.

NASA
Representational Image, VOA

While this burn is going on, the payload fairing — the launch vehicle’s nose cone — will separate into two halves like a clamshell and fall away.

When the rocket’s second stage has completed its ascent to the injection orbit altitude, it will pitch down (its nose points down) 30 degrees and roll so that one of the twin GRACE-FO satellites is facing down, toward Earth, and the other is facing up, toward space.

Then the second stage engine will cut off (SECO).

About 10 minutes after liftoff, a separation system on the second stage will deploy the GRACE-FO satellites.

Separation will occur over the Pacific Ocean at about 17.5 degrees North latitude, 122.6 degrees West longitude.

The first opportunity to receive data from the spacecraft will occur at NASA’s tracking station at McMurdo, Antarctica, about 23 minutes after separation, NASA said.

Also Read: A Study by NASA Shows Freshwater Decline in India

After the GRACE-FO satellites are deployed, the Falcon 9 second stage will coast for half an orbit before reigniting its engine (SES2) to take the Iridium Next satellites to a higher orbit for deployment.

GRACE-FO, a collaborative mission of NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), continues the work of the original GRACE mission in observing the movement of water and other mass around our planet by tracking the changing pull of gravity very precisely. (IANS)