Meeting Pluto (The Planet)

NASA made history this week, once again, when the project New Horizons, launched 9 years ago, reached the ‘ex-planet’ Pluto and its surrounding moons. Ever since it has arrived, it’s been sending us information from there, and putting it lightly, it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.

Scientists previously believed Pluto to be a calm, inactive dwarf planet; just a mass of ice and frozen gases floating around the Solar System. But defying all these expectations, Pluto seems to be very geologically active, actually similar to Earth, (or rather, one of Neptune’s moons, since it has a large ice mantle).

The clues that point to this surprising conclusion are many. For one, there are areas with no signs of craters caused by asteroid collisions, which would be impossible unless these sections are relatively new, as they would be if they had been formed recently by geological activity. There are also fault lines and rift valleys, both characteristic features of tectonic movement.

However, scientists are still puzzled as to how these movements are brought about. In Earth, tectonic movements happen because of the melted rock in the core of the planet, but this is not possible in Pluto, so a popular theory suggests that since it is filled with radioactive material (like most astronomical bodies), this somehow produces enough energy to heat up the surface of Pluto and causes the movement of large amounts of ice that act as tectonic plates.

But don’t think this trend of unexpectedness stops at Pluto. Its largest moon, Charon, is not far behind. It also displays signs of being geologically active, as it has deep canyons and very smooth expanses.


Pluto sure is a sweetheart

Since many new areas in Pluto and Charon have been true wonders, scientists have decided to give them appropriate names. The most famous one, unofficially nicknamed ‘The Heart’ because it is heart-shaped, is now probably going to be known as Tombaugh Regio in honour of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto in 1930. Another feature is a plane made of ice, which shows troughs at regular intervals, and has been dubbed the Sputnik Planum, in honour of the first spaceship. The Norgay Mountains are named after the first Sherpa to climb Mount Everest, and are a range of 3300 meter-high mountains made entirely of frozen ice which behaves like rocks. Astronomers also seem to be huge fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as they have named a feature in Pluto ‘Balrog’, a monster from this series, and a dark region in the pole of Charon is being called Mordor.

The mission also offered an opportunity to accurately measure Pluto’s diameter for the first time. The results show that it is 2.370 km large, possibly the largest of the five recognized dwarf planets in the Solar System.

Although the official flyby has ended, New Horizons’ adventures are not over. All this baffling information it has sent us only represents about 2% of all the data it has collected, so we can still expect many surprises from this mission for about 16 months as the rest comes in. And after the visit to Pluto, it is going to fly to the Kuiper Belt, a zone beyond the planets full of small icy bodies that may contain some interesting information as to how the Solar System was formed.

Meteor Marvel

The night of the 15th of February, the asteroid 2012 DA14 broke the record of the closest approach any asteroid has had with the planet Earth. It came closer than many of the satellites set by humans.

This object is known to be half the size of a football field, 45m approximately, becoming also the largest object that moves so close to the Earth and its atmosphere. Its composition is yet unknown, but scientists at NASA are trying to find out based on pictures taken during its orbit next to our planet.

Its closeness and its size have caused many scientists to consider the idea of it colliding with our planet. An object that size would not extinct the human race, but it would cause several natural disasters and could flatten loads of kilometers of trees. Luckily for us, astronomers have found the asteroid won’t come that near to us, and will continue its path without disturbing us in the future.

Because of the Earth’s gravity, the celestial object changed its orbit significantly, making it’s return to our planet take more time. Still, its next

2012DA14's route compared

2012DA14’s route compared

visit will be in 2046, another 15 of February. But the next time, it won’t be coming that close to the Earth. It’s orbit will be separated from us in a

distance of one million miles, which is four time the distance between the Earth and the moon.

Such sight was visible to everyone using binoculars between 19:00 and 23:00 hours, due to its size and its proximity.

This asteroid in particular is particularly important for me, because it was discovered a year ago in a project lead by the Astronomical Observatory of Mallorca, where I come from.

This laboratory, although small, is one of the most efficient observatories in the world when detecting asteroids. It is only surpassed by the NASA laboratory in this topic.



Charles Duke’s Space Adventure

Charles Duke (October, 1935, North Carolina) is a retired astronaut, that participated in one of the Apollo missions, specifically the Apollo 13 and 17, but most importantly in the Apollo 16, in which he worked with the other 2 NASA astronauts Mattingly and Young, with the objective of getting samples of the moon’s land and other various experiments.

He has a Bachelor of Science in Naval Sciences and a Master Degree in aeronautics.

His fame is due to being the youngest person to walk on the moon, which he did in 1972 at the age of 36. He is also known for being one of the 12 people who have been in the moon.

 The news about this man is the recent exhibition opening in Madrid about the journey that made him famous, the Apollo 16, which lately has celebrated its 40th birthday. Here is part of an interview that was made to him about the exhibition and his trip to the moon by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo:


Charles Duke in one of his conferences

What did you feel in the moment you set foot on the moon?

It was an intense excitement. Many things going through my mind. I am one of the lucky few who has lived that experience. I was not afraid, I felt like at home. I felt that was where I belonged.

 Is it easy for an astronaut to get used to gravity?

Initially, I felt dizzy, but hours later the fact of not having gravity ended up being fun. You can move as you want to in a very easy and fun way. Sleep is very refreshing; you do not get tired as it can sometimes happen in a bed. However, in the moon there is gravity. But, if you weigh 90 kilos in the Earth, on the moon you turn up to weigh 15k. The feeling is of being very light.

 What is it that you would have liked to do in the moon but you didn’t have time to?

It’s a good question. I wish I had done an experiment with temperature, but we had a problem with the electronic connection, so I could not complete the experiment. It was a great setback.

 What attracted more your attention about the moon?

It’s beauty. It has the most impressive desert I have ever seen. The earth was grey with a completely black background. You felt you could touch the absolute darkness.

 Mr. Duke, what do you think about the image that was broadcast when the first man set foot on the moon, the one with the flag flying? How is this possible if the moon has no atmosphere?

There is gravity on the moon. The flag was attached by a rod, not waved alone. When stabbed and set, the flag is put up by the rods. If it looked as if it was fluttering it’s because it was wrinkled, as it spent many hours in a box and we could not stretch it anymore.

 Will you give any conference these afternoons or in the weekend, at the exhibition in Madrid?

The conference I will give will be tomorrow afternoon and I will talk about how I became an astronaut, my desire to get a job like this, the adventure of becoming an astronaut, I’ll also show a film about my mission, and I will answer questions and talk about what I think about the future.

 If you want to see more details about the interview, although it’s in Spanish, you can visit where all the questions answered by the astronaut can be accessed.