We get signal: New Horizons’ first science data payload


The mountains on the surface of Pluto, as captured by New Horizons

Last night, the New Horizons team received a signal from the probe containing a data payload that was mostly engineering data–systems status, telemetry…basically, phoning home letting Mom know it was doing just fine after its busy day flying by Pluto and taking lots of pictures and scientific measurements. This morning, from about 7:00 – 8:25 am ET, they received the first payload of those pictures and measurements. This payload will include three very high-resolution, greyscale images in which each pixel represents a quarter mile. Beginning at 3:25 pm, more data will start streaming in. But this is only the beginning–it will take 16 months at a rate slower than most early dialup connections for New Horizons to send all of the images and readings it took of Pluto and its moons back to Earth. (But hey, give the little bot a break, its nearest WiFi antenna is over a billion miles away.)

NASA is holding an afternoon media briefing at 3 pm today to release these photos and some preliminary information about the scientific readings. You can watch live at NASA TV. Liveblog will commence below. Feel free to join in in the comments section.

[2:58]: Two minute warning. Audio feed is live, no video yet. Just crowd noise.

[3:00]: Here we go! John Grunsfeld at the podium, and a panel of NH crew. Packed auditorium, and apparently everyone was too excited to sleep.

[3:02]: Going through pretty pictures of all the planets, leading up to (hopefully) new Pluto pics!

[3:04]: Ok, just the one we’ve already seen. But that’s still cool. I’m just really excited. Alan Stern speaking next.

[3:06]: Panelists are Hal Weaver, Will Grundy, Cathy Olkin, John Spencer.

[3:07]: Data on Pluto’s atmosphere from the ALICE UV spectrometer will be released Friday

First pictures of Hydra at 2 miles per pixel.

[3:09]: Hydra is 28 miles by 19 miles. 45 percent reflectivity, meaning that its surface is mostly water ice.

[3:11]: Talking about RALPH and LISA data received from the failsafe dataset on Jul 12-13, focusing on the spectral images of methane on Pluto.

[3:13]: Cathy Olkin presenting new, beautiful image of Charon.

[3:15]: They’re calling the dark area around Charon’s pole “Mordor.” The image is in “true color.”

[3:17]: Here’s the image of Charon (screenshot from feed). Dropbox will ask you to sign in, but just hit the X to make the prompt go away. Dropboxing the pictures is faster than the WordPress upload.

[3:19]: Pluto’s “heart” has been named officially in honor of the discoverer of Pluto.

[3:20]: Whoa. That high-res image. No impact craters in the region photographed, meaning that the surface is relatively young (less than 100 million years) meaning that it may still be geologically active. Peaks are up to 11,000 feet high.

[3:23]: Here’s that image (screenshot)

You don’t need tidal heating to power ongoing geological change. This is a NEW DISCOVERY they made this morning.

[3:31]: The lack of craters on Charon suggests that it is still geologically active and may change what we think about where Charon came from. The current image is compressed, and they expect higher resolution pictures tomorrow.

[3:34]: “The Pluto system is something wonderful.” You can say that again.

[3:36]: What other than tidal energy could be powering active geology on Pluto and Charon? Hypotheses include radioactive heat (it occurs on Earth in insignificant amounts, but might be enough for an icy body) or stored heat energy from the body’s formation.

[3:38]: The variety of features on Charon and its smoothness and the discovery of Rocky Mountains-like mountain features on Pluto’s surface were both “big surprises.”

[3:41]: There is more than just methane ice scattering light near the equatorial regions of Pluto.

[3:46]: Studying the Pluto-Charon system may provide insight into how the Earth-Moon system formed, and the escape of Pluto’s escaping atmosphere may give insight into the loss of early Earth’s originally poisonous atmosphere and also maybe the loss of Mars’ water.

[3:52]: The gist I’m getting so far is that what we’ve got so far is creating about twice as many questions as it’s answering. Which I’m pretty sure means that this has definitely been successful science.

[3:55]: Official NASA-published images from the briefing: Hydra | Methane | Charon | Pluto’s Mountains

[4:01]: Next conference will be Friday at 1pm ET.

And that’s the show, folks! Enjoy the new pictures. I know I am. I don’t plan on liveblogging any more of the briefings, but these last two were kind of, you know…special. Keep an eye on the New Horizons mission page for many, many more images and updates.

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