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Pluto and Charon in the spotlight

Later today there will be another release of images from the NEW HORIZONS team. Yes, another. They released some a couple of days ago, mid-evening Wednesday actually, but I haven’t managed to write about them yet – yeah, I know, unlike everyone else in the world! ( Sorry, but I have a real life to attend to sometimes, I can’t just sit here eating pickled onion Fish n Chips snacks and writing about pretty pictures of Pluto like this every day… )

So, Wednesday night was the Big Reveal we had all been looking forward to – the NASA TV-streamed “media briefing” at which the first truly high resolution images of Pluto and Charon would be released. I managed to grab an hour’s kip before the briefing, shattered, and then almost slept right through it when my alarm (Stella) failed to wake me as early as I had wanted, and I had an absolutely frantic race against time to fire up my laptop and get on to NASA TV before the images were released. Luckily there was a bit of waffling at the start of the event, so I was watching when the first close-up of Charon was shown to the world –

And when it appeared on my screen I actually let out a gasp.,

charon 1 NASA TV

Oh… my… god.. look at THAT…

A dark polar cap… a valley system meandering across its middle… a hint of a truly giant canyon on its limb… craters dotted here ad there… I don’t think anyone had dared hope Charon would look anything like that, and when it was shown the crowd gathered at the event went justifiably nuts, just wild. And with that one picture Charon was instantly transformed into a genuine moon, a proper world “out there” in the depths of the solar system. It’s worth comparing what Charon looked like when it was discovered in 1978 with what it looked like to New Horizons as it sped past…

collage charon

A little bit of photo imaging trickery brought out some of the lower contrast detail on the image…

nh-charon enh me

Isn’t that incredible? (not the processing, the moon I mean!) Looking at that I’m torn between wanting to whoop and cheer at what NH actually saw and wanting to reach into the screen and somehow rotate Charon around until that fascinating gorge-like feature up there at 2 o’clock is brought fully into view. That must be an incredible sight…  oh well, next time… ;-)

No sooner had all the excitement about that image died down than it was time for the image release everyone had been waiting for – the first high resolution view of the surface of Pluto. Watching NASA TV I could almost sense hundreds of thousands of people all around the world leaning forward, towards their screens…

Pluto close up 1 NASA TV


Seriously, I wanted to punch the air and shout but my breath caught in my throat. All I could do was sit and stare at it, open-mouthed. And when the camera cut away to the people on the stage, with the image behind them, I knew they were talking but I wasn’t listening, just catching the odd word or two. One word kept being used… “mountains”…

What? What did they just say? Mountains?

Yes. Mountains. There were mountains on Pluto.


Not just any old mountains tho, mountains of ice as hard as rock… mountains as hard as rock, 11,000 feet high, or “as high as the Rockies”. That sounded very impressive, but as I’d never seen them, even though I’d heard of them obviously, I had to Google them –


So…. Pluto has mountains as high as that…. ok…………

I watched the rest of the media briefing, but even though I knew people were talking, and others were asking and answering questions, I couldn’t really pay attention; I was too hypnotised by that image of MOUNTAINS ON PLUTO, and it hit me then just how far we had come in just a handful of days…


And that was a close up of only one teeny tiny part of the surface, down there near the bottom of the disc…


In the days and weeks ahead the NH team will release more and more images with that resolution, slowly creating a mosaic of the surface of Pluto in quite ridiculous detail. Discoveries will be made on those images, people will Find Things that will make history and change science, forever. And we can all join in, by viewing the images on the NASA and NH websites and speculating too.

Here’s the highest resolution version of the “mountains” pic I could find…

nh-pluto-surface-scale NASA

And after a bit of tinkering…

nh-pluto-surface-scale v2crop

Stunning, just stunning. I went to bed with visions of Pluto’s mountains in my head that night, I can tell you…

Yesterday set out as being a “rest day” for those of us following the NH mission. No image release was planned, but after an outcry on Twitter and Facebook from people who were besotted with the mission, an image mysteriously appeared… no connection I’m sure… ;-)


This time we were shown a close-up of part of the surface of Sharon, showing lots of craters (planetary scientists love craters, they’re great for helping calculate the age of a body and for unravelling the story of its past) and a lot of speculation has followed about that strange “sunken mountain” up at the top there, but I won’t go into that now cos we’re about ten minutes away from the start of today’s media briefing and I have to log on to NASA TV. More later, with whatever new surprises and wonders the NH team shares with us!

Farewell, Pluto…

It’s now (checks watch) 9.43am on Wednesday morning, the day after the New Horizons Pluto flyby, and after a grand total of three and a half hours sleep I’m tapping away on my laptop, again, trying to make sense out of what happened yesterday. It was an awesome day, and somehow managed to be breathlessly exciting even tho, to be honest. not much really happened, at least not until the early… VERY early… hours of this morning. But I’m jumping ahead. Sorry, blame laptop jet-lag.

After getting up at 5.30am, too excited to sleep, yesterday morning was spent essentially sitting on my sofa, with Peggy beside me, staring at a screen and drinking cup after cup of tea, flicking between Twitter and Facebook, following the Tweets and posts of people either involved in or covering the mission, at the same time as watching a real-time simulation of what New Horizons was doing, and regularly checking an online countdown clock and waiting for it to reach zero. By mid-morning Twitter was groaning under the weight of Tweets from all the reporters, journalists, bloggers and space enthusiasts covering the flyby, as well as the Tweets of people actually involved in the mission, who were happy to keep the public and the media informed about what was happening and what they were doing, and it was hard keeping track of them sometimes, but worth it just to drink in the enthusiasm and the passion of everyone following the flyby, either in person over in the US or remotely online. The simulation was NASA’s brilliant “Eyes on The Solar System” app, which you download onto your computer and can then use to follow space missions like New Horizons in “real time”, with the screen displaying an accurate simulation of the spacecraft’s activities and movements.


Above: “Eyes on the Solar System” showing NH with 4 hours to go until closest approach.

Watching that was just wonderful, like sitting atop the probe as it raced towards Pluto, seeing Pluto growing larger and larger up ahead, watching the probe’s orientation change as it swung its cameras between Pluto, Charon and the smaller moons. You can see from the above screengrab that “Eyes” features a countdown clock in the bottom left corner, so I was able to keep an eye on the time with that, but I still found myself checking another website showing a clock counting down the hours, and then the minutes, and eventually the seconds until New Horizons flew past Pluto and made its historic closest approach to the dwarf planet out there in the Kuiper Belt. A habit, I think, as I’ve been following the spacecraft’s progress on that website for weeks now, but all part of the fun.

By 10.49, with two hours to go until closest approach, excitement was really building. “Eyes” was showing that NH was closing in on Pluto and its system of moons fast…


…and on Twitter and Facebook speculation about what NH’s photographs would show when they were received back on Earth was rife. Everyone was impatient to see The Image, a colour image sent back by the probe the previous day, before it had hung up its “Do not disturb!” sign around its neck and got down to business. Our expectations were certainly raised tho when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden – who had obviously seen it in advance – started singing its praises during interviews with callers on NASA TV. I noted what he was saying, and shared his comments on Twitter…

my tweets

The release of the image itself was scheduled for 1pm, in a media briefing broadcast live by NASA TV which would follow a celebration of the moment of closest approach, and no-one expected to see it before then. But…

At just after quarter past twelve, with half an hour or so to go until closest approach, a “sneak peek” preview of the image suddenly appeared online! Not a leak; NASA had deliberately released a low-resolution version of the image on its Instagram account, in advance of the release of the proper image, and everyone went wild for it!

instagram colour

Within a few minutes it was going around the world like a shock wave, being ReTweeted and Shared like crazy even as New Horizons continued to scream towards Pluto at more than 30,000 miles per hour. It was everywhere!

And the minutes kept ticking by…

At 12.30 NASA TV began a broadcast from the Johns Hopkins University, control centre for New Horizons, and the place was absolutely PACKED with people who had gathered to celebrate the fly-by. The atmosphere was genuinely electric, and as team members were interviewed, and people prepared to wave the smallest Stars and Stripes flags I have ever seen, I kept my eyes on Eyes… and suddenly we were just ten minutes or so away from the big moment…


“Eyes” showed Pluto overflowing the field of view of NH’s cameras, and on NASA TV the excitement climbed and climbed and climbed… everywhere except in the Mission Operations Centre, where one guy seemed unmoved by the whole thing…


Suddenly there was less than a minute to go..!


…and on NASA TV the countdown began. With everyone on their feet, flags in hand, they chanted… “10… 9… 8…” Huge smiles everywhere, some nervous, some happy. “7… 6… 5…4… 3… 2… 1…”

closest approach


countdown zero

And the place ERUPTED –

I couldn’t help feeling very emotional too. It was an incredible achievement – after a journey of almost ten years, after covering more than three billion miles, a spacecraft had just raced past Mars! But…

Part of me wasn’t sure WHY we were celebrating so much. After all, we didn’t actually know WHAT had happened at 12.49. If everything had worked properly, NH had just sped past Pluto in one piece, cameras clicking madly, like an American tourist on an open-topped bus going around London. But if something bad had happened earlier – if the probe had suffered another computer glitch, or had been hit by a piece of grit blown off Charon or one of the other moons, or if it had been smashed to bits in a collision with a previously unknown mini moon – then we were celebrating under false pretenses. I think a few other people thought that too, but it was the elephant in the room, no-one was speaking about it. Instead everyone swished and swayed their tiny Stars and Stripes flags, and whooped and high-fived and punched the air. Some even started chanting “USA! USA! USA!”

Now… I know some people don’t like all that Rocky V stuff during NASA events, but you know what? I do, and I think it’s perfectly fine for them to do it. After all, it’s their success they’re celebrating, their achievement, they DID it, so why shouldn’t they puff out their chests and celebrate? They’ve earned it! It’s something we should do more! I imagine that if Beagle 2 HAD phoned home on Christmas Day back in 2003, with Colin Pilinger beaming behind them the scientists in mission control would have shook hands politely, smiled self-consciously for the watching TV cameras and then got back to work, looking forward to dunking a Hob Nob or maybe a bourbon in a cup of tea later, when all the fuss had died down.

With the moment of Closest Approach passed… whatever had happened out there… it was time for the media briefing, and the Big Reveal of The Colour Picture –

red pluto.php

When that was shown at the media briefing it was bedlam, more whooping, cheering and clapping. That was a genuinely historic moment – the first close-up colour picture of Pluto was there for all to see. Such detail, such clarity…

And this has to be said: watching that grand unveiling I was struck, almost like a blow across the face, with the contrast between the attitude of the NH team and a certain team in charge of an instrument onboard a certain comet orbiter. Yesterday, NASA and the New Horizons team happily – and I mean happily, they were delighted to – released the first close-up colour image of Pluto in history, mere hours after it was taken, without any need for “proprietary periods”. They shared it with the world, as soon as they could, in fact they worked through the night to ensure it was ready to be released to the media and the public, and laughed with sheer joy as they did so. And watching them, the joy of exploration wrotten all over their faces, it was ironic to imagine the OSIRIS team tuning in at the same time, looking at that gorgeous image at the same time everyone else was, oohing and aahing over it like everyone else did, while *their* images of 67P stayed firmly behind lock and key.

I hate being so negative, really I do. I want to trumpet ESA – MY space agency! – and the ROSETTA mission from the rooftops, but yesterday really showed the problem. With absolute joy and delight the New Horizons team released an absolutely ICONIC image, an image that will literally go down in history as the first close-up colour image of Pluto. That image is drenched in science, because everything on it, *everything*, was new. Yet there are OSIRIS images now six months old, showing stunning detail, that the team there have already used in their papers and work, but they still refuse to release them. The contrast could not be starker. Later today NASA will release the first close-up images of the surface of Pluto, as soon as they can, without any bleating or science-gazumping paranoia. The NAVCAM team continues to release gorgeous pictures and there are now free-to-browse galleries containing thousands of them. Meanwhile there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of OSIRIS images perhaps that have already been worked with but are still being held back. It’s just so, so sad. And it really has to change. Someone has to make them change.

UPDATE: With incredible timing, a couple of hours after I wrote this a whole clutch of OSIRIS images was released by ESA, and some of them are stunning. So, credit where credit is due, thank you to the OSIRIS team for finally giving ESA permission to use some of their pictures and to share them with us!

So, there it was, Pluto in colour! But I must admit it wasn’t as colourful as I’d been expecting, especially after what Charles Bolden had been saying earlier during his chats on NASA TV. Yes, it was colourful… in a washed-out, salmon-pink kind of way, but I had been expecting something more like this, to be honest…

red pluto b sm

(that’s my tweaked version, made after the image was posted online)

But nope, not complaining, there was Pluto, in colour, with a bewildering variety of landforms and geological features on its surface – craters, mountains, or certainly rolling hills, and much more besides. Fantastic! I made this picture ti bring home to people just how far we’ve come, and soon it was spreading across Twitter and Facebook…

collage time

(Key: Pluto discovery image / early Hubble image / later Hubble image / New Horizons early B&W pic / New Horizons colour image)

And, of course, the best was yet to come…

..and after that it all went rather quiet, because the probe wasn’t scheduled to take a break from its science activities and beam home the space-probe equivalent of an impatient teenager’s “I’m ok, I made it, stop worrying!” phone call for several more hours, and then there would be a delay of several hours more until that message was actually received, so it was finally time to get away from the laptop, grab a bite to eat and then go and get some much-needed fresh air.


The evening passed relatively quietly. Again, much of it was spent reading Tweets and FB posts from people who were reporting on, involved in or just following the mission. There was a flurry of excitement before midnight when NASA released “new colour images” of both Pluto and Charon, and compared to the one released in the afternoon they SCREAMED colour!


WOW! Look at those!! That’s more like it!!

Ah… wait… those were “false colour” images, enhanced and manipulated and tweaked by the science team to highlight different surfaces and minerals, etc. Looking at those pictures I couldn’t help wonder if they were the ones Charlie Bolden had seen and been so amazed by, but surely the boss of NASA wouldn’t make such a mistake…

The false colour images of Pluto and Charon offered a lot of “instant science” even for the layperson. Most obviously, they showed that the famous “heart” on Pluto is actually composed of two very different areas – the area on the left is a much paler, much more yellow colour than the one on the right, which is much bluer. Also, the “ice cap” up at the top there looks very feathered, very tattered. And finally, look at that dark “polar cap” on Charon… isn’t its colour very similar to the colour of the dark areas on Pluto’s equator?

crop enh3

Up to midnight I lived on my laptop, reading all the Tweets from the New Horizons HQ where people were gathering to wait for the make or break moment of the whole mission – the receipt of the “All’s well” signal from the space probe after it had passed through the Pluto system. That wasn’t due to come back until just before 2am, during a NASA TV media briefing which was scheduled to begin at 01.30, so I finally gave in and grabbed an hour and a half’s sleep before getting up again, going online again, and tuning in to NASA TV to wait… and wait… and wait…

When I went back online and logged on to NASA TV it was 01.20 here in the UK, 8.20pm over at the media briefing, and boy were they looking tired. I can’t imagine the type of day they’d had, but it was showing on some of their faces. Now the MOC (mission control) was full of people, some of them very nervous-looking, staring at screens and waiting for New Horizons’ signal to reach Earth and reassure them than everything was ok out there…

MOC waiting signal

No-one was hoovering now! Amidst all the tension and anxiety, one lady was an oasis of calm…


That’s New Horizons Operations Manager Alice Bowman, who I reckon will wake up this morning – hopefully after a good night’s sleep! – to find she is a new national hero for her role in the mission. I was really, really impressed with her throughout the whole mission, she was cool, calm and collected throughout (no matter how she was feeling inside!) but never came across as a cold engineer, she was always approachable and obviously totally in love with what she was doing. So, as the minutes ticked by NASA TV focussed on her, sitting at that desk, listening to her headphones like Jodie Foster in CONTACT, waiting to hear The Signal from New Horizons…

And then it seemed like something was going on. Someone behind Alice broke out into a grin and made a pumping fist gesture. She gave a little smile, listening to her headphones… and slowly, so slowly it became apparent that yes, the probe had phoned home. NH had made it safely through the Pluto system!

signal celebrate

Cue shouting, clapping, whooping, cheering, an auditorium of people jumping to their feet in celebration…

But had it done all it was supposed to?

One by one, Alice went around the mission team, asking for a report on the status of their particular part of the mission, and one by one they all reported back: “….. is nominal”… “…is nominal”… “nominal results from…”

In space exploration, “nominal” is good. Nominal means normal. Nominal means “working just fine, thank you for asking”. Nominal means “YES!!!! GET IN THERE!!!!!!”

New Horizons had not only made it through the Pluto system, but along the way it had made all the observations and measurements it had been asked to, had carried out all its planned maneouvres, and had come out the other side in tip top shape.


The celebrations in the auditorium were heartfelt and genuine, and after a short break to let everyone calm down the New Horizons team was brought out to be applauded and cheered by the crowd, bounding down the steps towards the stage, smiling beaming smiles, shaking hands.

stern stairs

That’s I Alan Stern running down the steps like a contestant on The Price Is Right…

manager steps

…and that’s Alice Bowman, looking quite amazed by the whole thing.

Some looked like they’d just won the lottery, others looked utterly bemused. Some looked close to tears, others just weary to their bones, but one by one they fulled the stage and basked in the applause of the crowd…

team 2


After speeches by various NASA top brass, and a really great speech from PI Alan Stern…

smiling stern after signal

…there was time for a Q&A with the audience, and again Alice Bowman, and her love for what she does, shone from the stage…

mission manager

Eventually the media briefing crawled to an end, everyone clearly shattered after their long day, and once it became clear no new images were going to be released I decided to finally call it a day myself, having been up since before 6am the previous morning. Beside me, where she had stayed for most of the day, Peggy was fast asleep, snoring quietly, legs kicking and ears twitching in a happy cat dream, so I left her to it and went to bed…


Now? More waiting! As I type this New Horizons is more than 770,000 km past Pluto, on its way deeper into the Kuiper Belt, and the NH team are going through the first batches of data sent back by the probe since it passed through the Pluto system. At 8pm tonight, UK time, there will be a very important media briefing when we will get to see what we’ve all been waiting for – the first high resolution, close-up views of the surface of Pluto! Will we see mountains, canyons and plains? Will we see individual craters, cracks in the ice, huge boulders? We’ll have to wait and see.

Try to be patient. It will be worth it!

The Big Day…

So… here we are… The Big Day… the day NASA’s NEW HORIZONS probe, after a journey of almost 5 billion miles and more than 9 years, flies past Pluto. I thought *yesterday* was exciting, but today will make it seem like a quiet sit down in the back of a church.

Well, kind of… there won’t actually be much to SEE today, at least not until the end of the day (UK time) because the probe will be too busy taking pictures and measurements today to send anything new back – basically NH will hang up a big “DO NOT DISTURB!” sign as it screams past Pluto and Charon – but we should see, at some point, images taken yesterday, and overnight, which will be fantastic, I’m sure.

It’s now 06.12 and as I type this we’re just 6 hours and 36 minutes away from NH’s closest approach to Pluto. At the moment it is swinging its cameras towards Pluto, ready to take a sequence of images which we will see tomorrow. How do I know this? Because I downloaded a brilliant computer app from NASA called “Eyes On The Solar System” which allows me to follow (not watch) the probe’s activities as they happen, in real-time. Of course, it’s just a simulation, but it is exquisitely detailed, and watching it is quite hypnotising – it’s a wonder I’m getting anything written at all! In a few hours time things will get rather busy “out there” but until then it should be relatively quiet. “Following the mission” will essentially mean following the Tweets and Facebook posts from people either on the mission itself or reporting on it, and there are a LOT of those!

Time, then, to look back on yesterday…

Yesterday was the day, I think, that Pluto finally became a world in its own right, because we saw the first really clear pictures of it, showing proper detail on its surface. I know, some images had been released before yesterday, but they were still really just light and dark, quite low resolution. But yesterday’s images – not just of Pluto but if Charon too – were way more detailed than anything seen before, and sitting here, watching them come in, and playing with them, I was like a dog in a lamp post factory.

In fact, two sets of images were released yesterday, separated by several hours. The first set really had people following the mission whooping with delight, because they showed real physical detail on the planet. Here’s the image of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, that was released (left) and my processed take on it (right)…

collage charon july 13

Now even a quick look at that tells you that Charon has geological features on it. You can clearly see at least two big craters, with splashed of brighter material around them, and a canyon system on the far right. But it was images of Pluto we were all waiting to see, and when they were released… wow…

Pluto July 13 collage

Wonderful, just wonderful…!

At teatime there was a media briefing covered live on NASA TV, and a delighted panel of NH scientists gave an update on the mission status – basically, everything was fine, no last minute problems, the probe was on course and on track for its encounter. One highlight was the announcement that new measurements of Pluto by NH had allowed the team to measure its diameter more accurately than ever before, and those measurements suggested – not proved categorically – that Pluto was indeed larger than Eris, meaning Pluto regains its crown as the largest object in the Kuiper Belt!


Though, having said that, Eris hasn’t been measured as accurately, and it is more massive than Pluto, so I expect that debate will rumble on for a while yet.

Later in the evening a pair of new images of Pluto and Charon were released, and they showed even more detail. First, here’s the “raw” image of Charon (of course it’s not just a single image, it’s an image NASA produced from several images) with my own processed version next to it on its right…

collage charon teatime Jul 13

Big crater there, BIG crater! And lots of people looking at that image thought “Hmmm, that looks a LOT like one of the moons of Neptune…” Looking forward to clearer images of that later today.

But of course it was a new image of Pluto we were all looking forward to, and when it was released on the web it was a stunner…

Pluto NASA teatime raw

Oh, look at that… look down there at the bottom… SO much going on there, sunken areas, raised areas, layering, it’s a geological wonderland! And after a bit of processing even more detail came out…

Pluto teatime NASAbb

Now, by anyone’s standards that is a stunning image. And the ones taken today will make *that* one look like a blurry, smudgy mess, so stay tuned.

One question many people are asking is “Why aren’t they taking colour pictures? Why is everything in black and white?” Well, they are taking colour pictures, but taking those is more complicated, and beaming them back takes longer too, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer for those. One should be released this afternoon, and if the teasing, giddy Tweets I was reading from mission scientists last night are anything to go by, it will be fantastic..! In the meantime, here’s my not-accurate-at-all-just-did-it-for-fun colourised view…

Pluto NASA teatime colb

As I write this there are now four hours and forty two minutes to go until New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto – what can we actually expect to happen today? What will we be able to see?

Well, the best “view” of what is happening will be courtesy of that NASA computer app “Eyes on the Solar System”, which is a real-time live simulation of what New Horizons is doing, and seeing. Here’s a link to it – you have to download it onto your computer (not available for phones, sorry) and then run it. This is what it’s showing me right now…


You can see from that that NH is currently imaging the tiny moon “Nix”. Seriously, you HAVE to download this app, it’s the next best thing to being able to watch the fly-by live.

There will be a NASA Media Briefing on NASA TV at 12.30 (UK time) which will run until around 1pm. During that briefing the moment of closest approach will come and go, but there’ll be nothing to actually see because there’s no live video feed from the probe, and even if there was there would be a long, long time delay anyway, so the moment will be marked with a speech, probably, and a few “Well, fingers crossed…” smiles exchanged between the team members, too. However, there will be something to see because it’s expected that during the briefing we’ll get to see images taken yesterday, including that previously-mentioned and long-awaited colour image, so don’t miss that!

After that? Well, there’s nothing else scheduled, broadcast- or briefing wise until the very early hours of Wednesday morning, when another Media Briefing will be held at 1am.  Yes, you read that correctly, 1 AM! That will be a very important one, because that’s when we’ll hear – after a day of radio silence – if the probe made it through the Pluto system safely: an “I’m still here guys!” radio message, beamed back to Earth right after the closest encounter, should arrive on Earth just after 2am, so it will be very tense indeed waiting for that. If – no, let’s be optimistic, WHEN – that comes in, expect to see the mission team jumping up and down and punching the air in delight and relief. I always love watching that! :-)

There will be another Media Briefing between 2.30am and 3.00am, which will give a “Mission Status” update, and then a long, long wait until 8pm Wednesday night when a major Media Briefing will be held, at which we will hopefully see a lot of new and amazing images.

So, there are now less than 4 hours to go until closest approach, and all we can do is wait.

Tick tick tick…!




Almost there…

So… here we are, Monday morning, and my increasingly-useful “PlutoSafari” app tells me New Horizons is 1 day 3 hours 0 minutes and 31 seconds away from its closest approach to Pluto. Tomorrow is going to be crazy, and if anything the day after will be even crazier, but today should be a relatively quiet day. We’ll see what happens, maybe they’ll drop some surprise images on us.

I spent a LOT of yesterday online, lurking in the corner of the internet like a spider (why the hell did I use THAT image? I hate spiders!!!), just following what was happening with the New Horizons mission from various directions and sources: Twitter was useful for following comments both from mission members and journalists/bloggers/reporters gathered at NH mission control in advance of and during a press Q&A in the evening; Facebook was good for keeping an eye on astronomy people not at mission control but equally excited by the mission; space exploration forums were useful for following the feverish speculation going on about what the images are showing. Some people are predicting geysers or shiny ice, others are expecting to see hints of clouds hovering above Pluto’s limb… it will be fascinating to see how many of these theories pan out.

After my day of lurking, I stayed up late last night in anticipation of a new image being released, but at around 1am I think it was the team said they wouldn’t be releasing any images “until tomorrow” – which is today – so I turned off my phone, tablet and laptop, all of which I’d been using during the day, and headed to bed –

– only to find when I got up this morning that the sneaky little blighters had released some new images overnight after all, and it was catch-up time!

One of the images was of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon…

charon new crop

As soon as I saw that I thought “oooh, craters!” because you can clearly see two round, dark features with bright ‘aprons’ around them, one down at the bottom and centre of the disc, the other over on the right about halfway up. And, even more exciting, at the three o’clock position there is what looks very much like a canyon of some sort…!

The press release that went with the release of the images confirms that, and offers up some fascinating analysis of the image from the New Horizons team:

New Horizons’ newest images reveal Pluto’s largest moon Charon to be a world of chasms and craters. The most pronounced chasm, which lies in the southern hemisphere, is longer and miles deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, according to William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics investigation team.

“This is the first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon,” says McKinnon, who is based at the Washington University in St. Louis. “New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity.”

The most prominent crater, which lies near the south pole of Charon in an image taken July 11 and radioed to Earth today, is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across. The brightness of the rays of material blasted out of the crater suggest it formed relatively recently in geologic terms, during a collision with a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) some time in the last billion years.

The darkness of the crater’s floor is especially intriguing, says McKinnon. One explanation is that the crater has exposed a different type of icy material than the more reflective ices that lie on the surface. Another possibility is that the ice in the crater floor is the same material as its surroundings but has a larger ice grain size, which reflects less sunlight. In this scenario, the impactor that gouged the crater melted the ice in the crater floor, which then refroze into larger grains.

A mysterious dark region near Charon’s north pole stretches for 200 miles. More detailed images that New Horizons will take around the time of closest approach to the moon on July 14 may provide hints about the dark region’s origin.  

With a bit of tweaking in my various image processing programs I got this…

collage charon july 13

Now, I’ll say again, I am NOT suggesting that the “processing” I do on images like this is scientifically accurate or even useful. There’s no fancy calibration process being used, or image registering, etc, I am genuinely just playing about with a half dozen photo processing software packages and websites to try and a) pull out more detail, and b) create images which look pleasing. So the image on the right there may have some image processing artefacts on it, it might not, I just think it looks striking, that’s all.

But what about Pluto itself..?

Overnight this was released into the wild by the NH team…


…and that is just eye-bulgingly good isn’t it? So much going on there… and with a bit of work, it became this…

Pluto July 13 collage

Ladies and gentlemen – Pluto, revealed at last… :-)

Just take a moment to think about what we’re seeing now. In 1930 Pluto was discovered on a pair of photographic plates. It looked exactly like it did through a telescope – a tiny dot. Today, we can see it as a world, with what look like an ice cap, craters, dark plains, and more, That’s how incredible a time and an event this is. Or, to put it another way…

collage then now c

Will end this post with my “best today” view of Pluto. Compared to what we’ll see soon this is fuzzy and crude and blurry, but it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. More later!

pluto best new

Hello – and goodbye…

Late last night a new image of Pluto was released by the New Horizons team, and it was a bitter-sweet encounter. This is the photo…


Why? Because that image shows probably *the* most fascinating features seen on Pluto’s surface so far – a quartet of dark… somethings… all spaced out in a line. “But isn’t that a good thing?” I hear some of you asking. Yes, well, it is… they’re intriguing, and have been ever since our first much blurrier glimpse of them a little while ago… but the bad news is that we won’t be seeing them again, not from New Horizons anyway. I tweaked the image a little to make them stand out more clearly…


Isn’t that wonderful? (the image, not my tweaking, ha!). Look at them all lined up, like a cat walked across a freshly-laid path, leaving paw-prints in the cement. This is the Charon-facing side of Pluto, which means it will be hidden from view during the fly-by, so this is the best view we we will have of those strange features during this mission, and until the next mission to Pluto, which probably won’t happen for several decades.

What are they? Speculation is, of course, rife amongst followers of the mission, Some think they could be methane lakes, like Titan has (unlikely for lots of sciency reasons). Others think they could be depressions filled with dark dust, blown there by the winds of Pluto. Hmmm… possible… but who knows? Others still wonder if they are just patches of darker, older ice. Well, maybe, but their secret will remain safe until we return to Pluto, which might not be in our lifetimes (unless you’re a 7 year old reading this).

Ahhh, damnit

It would be handy if New Horizons could just slam on the brakes and go back for another look, but that can’t happen. Her course is locked in, and as the great man said…


…so onwards New Horizons will scream, heading towards Pluto and her date with history.

But never mind, even though it does, to be honest, look rather less exciting than this side, I’m sure the side of Pluto NH *will* see in detail will be just as fascinating. After all, we’re only seeing it in low resolution blurriness at the moment, and there could be all sorts of wonders and weird stuff just waiting to be seen yet! I mean, if you looked at Europa at such low resolution you would have no idea of how bizarre and fascinating its surface is, and the same goes for Ganymede too…

collage collage2

(Please note, before anyone leaves a comment, that I *know* that is not an accurate comparison… different sizes, different albedoes etc, I’m just Making A Point, ok?)

There are now less than two days, TWO DAYS to go until New Horizons flies past Pluto, and the excitement is really building. You’ll be relieved to hear I managed to get out of the flat and stock up on those tea bags and biscuits I talked about, and I’m now ready for the big day and those on either side of it, too. There should be at least one more new pic tonight, even sharper and clearer still, so looking forward to that. In the meantime, to end this post with as we ponder what might have been, here’s a (purely for fun, as usual) colourised view of the face of Pluto we won’t see again for a long, long time…


Pluto starts to swim into focus…


Yesterday the New Horizons team released a pair of images which set the space enthusiast community alight, and excited everyone following the mission. They weren’t images of Pluto itself, but “behind the scenes” pictures of some of the team gathered around a laptop, reacting to their first glimpses of the latest images of Pluto to come back from the probe…

1st close up

After my initial “What are you looking at??? Turn the laptop around, I want to see too!!!” reaction, a few things struck me about those images. Firstly, the sheer joy on their faces as they view those images. They aren’t just scientists, they’re space enthusiasts, just like us. They are having the time of their lives, aren’t they? They are exploring, seeing new things, making discoveries which will re-write the astronomy books and change the way we view the outer solar system forever and they are as giddy as kids on Christmas Day morning seeing their presents stacked under the tree. Secondly, they’re not standing beneath some huge ARMAGEDDON-like screen in cliche hands-on-hips superhero scientist poses, they’re clustered around a laptop, just a laptop, like yours or mine – well, ok, probably a lot more powerful and expensive than mine, but you know what I mean! – and looking at images their spacecraft has taken, just like you or I would look at pictures we’ve taken on holiday. I love that!

But what WERE they looking at? When those images appeared I couldn’t resist guessing…

1st close up

…but late last night the real reason for their excitement was revealed, when the latest image of Pluto was released to the world. If you haven’t seen it already, brace yourselves…

we have geology

Wow… look at that… we can now see SURFACE DETAIL ON PLUTO!!! As the team declared in its press release… “Houston… we have geology!

Looking at that image, even in its raw form, a lot of things are obvious. Firstly, Pluto is no flat, boring body. It has features on its ancient surface, areas of starkly-contrasting light and dark and, even more exciting, topography. There are shapes visible on that image, lines and circles and that hexagon… thing… on the left. With a bit of tweaking (NOT done in any scientific way, I hasten to add, just messing about with levels and contrast etc to bring out details and emphasise features, etc) the view becomes even more dramatic…


Oh, look at that…. isn’t that beautiful??? :-) :-) There’s SO much going on there… the boundaries between the light and dark areas are very sharp and clear… that hexagon… thing… really stands out… are those *craters* along that band in the middle…? Can’t wait to see the next images, which will be even clearer!

So, NOW we know why the New Horizons team was looking so happy in those pictures: they had just become the first people, in history, to see details on the surface of Pluto.

And the best thing is they’re letting us look over their shoulders.

If you want to see the images of Pluto being taken by New Horizons – not live, of course; the scientists have to get first look, that’s only fair! – you can go to a website and just see them. No registration required, no logging in, no terms or conditions, you can just see them. And then, if that’s your thing, you can play about with them – sorry, skilfully enhance and process them to bring out any particular details or features that catch your eye, or turn them into animated gifs, or 3D anaglyphs, all sorts of things. That’s what I do, to a degree, but just for my own amusement and use in my outreach work really, others do it soooo much better than me. In this way the New Horizons team is following in the footsteps of other NASA missions, especially the Mars rovers (all of them) and CASSINI, and as well as being a very generous thing to do it just makes sense: space missions like these aren’t cheap, and they’re basically paid for by tax-payers, so why WOULD you want to stop the people who pay for the photos to be taken from seeing them? That would be crazy, right?

Well, not everyone thinks that way, sadly. Even though every day now, Every Day, without paranoid ramblings about “proprietary periods” or the need to “preserve science” the New Horizons team is happily – almost giddily – releasing new images of Pluto, inviting the world to share in their joy of discovery and the thrill of exploration, allowing us all to feel part of this historic adventure, the OSIRIS team on the European Space Agency ROSETTA mission continues to horde its images, sharing them with a select number of scientists when they feel like it while refusing to let the media or the public, which paid for them to be taken, to see them. In contrast, the mission’s NAVCAM team is releasing images daily, and now has an archive of *thousands* of images available to browse. Additionally, the ROSETTA mission outreach team has done a fantastic job, and continues to do so, and ROSETTA scientists like Matt Taylor and Emily Baldwin  are brilliant ambassadors for the mission and ESA. As an organsation, ESA is supporting the mission enthusiastically, so I wonder how they feel about the people in charge of the most advanced camera onboard their history-making space-probe behaving like selfish children who won’t share their toys? It’s just shameful and shocking that the OSIRIS team, which promised us regular releases in the run-up to the probe’s arrival, is behaving in the way it is, which is to have a total disregard, even contempt, for the modern way of doing things, which helps the public to feel involved in the missions they pay for through their taxes. I just can’t get my head around it.


As we all drool over the latest images of Pluto (you know, I found myself smiling and shaking my head in disbelief when I wrote that… ‘…the latest images of Pluto’!! haha!!!) the contrast between Old Space (OSIRIS) and New Space (New Horizons) could not be starker or more shaming. In years to come I have no doubt that the way the OSIRIS team has behaved will be cited as a textbook example of how not to participate in a mission. In lectures, Powerpoint presentations and theses for years to come, people will use OSIRIS as the classic example of how to undermine the space agency behind a mission and alienate the public. Such a shame.

Although I would *never* personally condone such a thing, *obviously*, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if one of those darling little Korean or Russian hackers, who takes such perverse delight in writing their pain in the arse computer viruses, are space enthusiasts, and wondering what would happen if their curiosity got  the better of them and they turned their attention towards the OSIRIS servers, releasing some of the poor images of 67P cruelly being held hostage there, chained to radiators in the OSIRIS HQ basement…

So, again, although I’ve said it before, here on my blog and in personal messages to the team, a huge THANK YOU to Alan Stern and the New Horizons team for allowing all of us to share in their excitement and joy at this historic time. Thank you for allowing us to stand beside you as you reveal Pluto in all its bizarre geological glory. :-)

I think we forget sometimes how lucky we are to be alive at this incredible time. Unless we do something stupid and blow ourselves up, or exterminate ourselves with some virus or other, in centuries to come people will see Pluto and its moons – and the other worlds and moons in our solar system – in person, marvelling at them either on their surfaces or through the windows of their spacecraft. It’s easy to think about that and envy them, to kick angrily at the dirt and grumble “I wish I lived a hundred years in the future, when the world was more like Star Trek…” but I was thinking about this just yesterday, after a successful trip into town to see if the model attached to the cover of the latest issue of the bi-weekly “Star Trek – The Official Starships Collection” magazine was worth buying. Some weeks they are – a model of one of the classic ships – and others they’re not, like when the model is of some can’t-remember-ever-seeing-that Kazon supply ship or A Gorn toilet scow or something like that, but I always enjoy the anticipation of going into WH Smiths and looking at the dump bin by the front door, just in case there’s a ST mag in it with something worth buying attached to its cover. It’s a bit like a sci-fi lucky dip or scratch card. So, yesterday I went in, and yes, there was a new issue of the magazine… I picked it up –

YES!!!!! GET ***IN*** there!!! It was the starship I’d been waiting for…


And the model that was on the cover…


There she is… a thing of beauty… NCC 1701… the original Constitution class Enterprise. I have wanted a model of her ever since I was a child, and never managed it. Now I have one, and she has taken her place alongside her sister ships in the fleet next to my computer…


Why am I twittering on about Star Trek star-ships? Well, after I had sat staring at and playing with my new scale model for half an hour, it set me thinking, imagining a far future when an organisation something like Starfleet could well be flying sleek star-ships to faraway suns, and as I found myself wishing that I could be alive in a future like that, not for the first time, it suddenly hit me that even if I was alive at that time I probably would be no better off than I am now; it would be very unlikely for me to be one of the people “out there”, travelling to and exploring those ‘strange new worlds’. For one thing, the future simply won’t be like it is in Star Trek. Let’s be honest here: the Star Trek universe is basically an idealised hippy-trippy Haight Ashbury tree- and dilithium crystal-hugging utopia where no-one has a *real* job, and everyone is rich and free enough to float from planet to planet wearing the latest designer fashion and spouting New Age platitudes. Come on, the real future won’t be anything like that, will it? Star travel will be hugely, obscenely expensive, and only a chosen few will get to do it for the first half dozen generations of interstellar travel. That means the odds of someone like me being able to “get out there” and sight-see are vanishingly small. Think about it. To have the chance to do that I would have to apply to join “Starfleet” or whatever it was called, then be accepted, then complete all the training, and then I might get assigned to a ship that would go on one of the glamour missions, the missions of true exploration. Far more likely that even if I did graduate from Starfleet I would barely scrape through my exams and end up as a tablet-tapping clerk on some milk run between Earth and Titan. And if I didn’t manage that, if I flunked my classes, I would be stranded Earthside, in a normal job, and would have to make do, like everyone else, with seeing pictures and videos of all the fantastic planets, their cities and inhabitants the Starfleet elite were seeing in person – as I said, not really any better off than now!

No. The internet is my Enterprise, and NASA is my Starfleet.

So, as much as I love Star Trek, I’m happy to be sitting here on this dull Saturday in Kendal in July 2015, with the cat stretched out and snoring beside me, my laptop on my knee, listening to “The Wall” while I swoon over the latest images of Pluto and look forward to the coming few days. Ages ago I booked Tuesday and Wednesday off work so I could follow the fly-by properly, as it happened, and not have to catch upon events after they had happened, so come Monday night I’m going to make myself a cosy little nest here, settle down, and drink in every historic minute of it. Some of the highlights on NASA TV (UK times) will be:

Monday, July 13

4pm – 5pm – A “Media Briefing”, with a Mission Status report and “What to Expect” guide.

THE BIG DAY!!! Tuesday, July 14

12.30 – 1pm – “Arrival at Pluto Countdown Program

From the NASA TV schedule: “At approximately 12.49pm, New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the surface, after a journey of more than nine years and three billion miles. The moment of closest approach will be marked during the live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.”

**** 1pm – 2pm– Media briefing, including a release of images ****

Wednesday July 15th

(Note to self: going to be a long, long day… best check coffee and snack supplies!)

01.30 – 02.15am – “Phone Home”, broadcast from APL Mission Control

NASA TV will share the suspenseful moments of this historic event with the public and museums around the world. The New Horizons spacecraft will send a preprogrammed signal after the closest approach. The mission team on Earth should receive the signal by about 02.02am. ( When New Horizons “phones home,” there will be a celebration of its successful flyby and the anticipation of data to come in the days and months ahead.

02.30 – 03.00am – Media Briefing: New Horizons Health and Mission Status

And then, in the evening, the biggie…

**** 8 – 9pm Media Briefing:Seeing Pluto in a New Light” ****

Release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.

Right….off to Iceland to buy some coffee, tea bags, Nik Naks and chocolate biscuits. Going to be a long, and exciting, few days…! To finish off with, a look at some recommended sites to bookmark for the adventure ahead…

New Horizons picture gallery

New Horizons website

New Horizons Flyby Countdown

Where Is New Horizons?

Realtime New Horizons simulator

Emily Lakdawalla’s blog

“PlutoSafari App”

If you’re on Twitter, follow the hashtag #PlutoFlyby, and @NewHorizons2015 | @NASANewHorizons | @AlanStern for information and updates as the encounter proceeds.

Full ahead to Pluto..!


Look at that… wow… The long wait is almost over. With just a few days left to go ( how many, exactly? Well,  there’s a really useful online countdown clock here… ) until the New Horizons probe screams through the Pluto system, the world seems to be going Pluto crazy! But that shouldn’t be surprising: the images coming back from the probe now are are waaay better than any taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and you can see from the latest image, above, that New Horizons can confirm what Hubble hinted at – that Pluto is a fascinating world, with bright areas and dark.

Many people are commenting how similar Pluto looks, from New Horizon’s present distance and at this limited resolution, to what Mars looks like through a small telescope…


…which is all very well and good, but we want to know what Pluto is REALLY like, don’t we? Let’s look at that image again, this time tweaked a bit, just for fun…

7-8-15_pluto_color_new_nasa-jhuapl-swri c

We want to know what craters, landforms and features – if any – are hiding in those simple light and dark areas, just waiting for New Horizons’ cameras to pick them out. It won’t be long until we see them, I think. Every day’s images are a little clearer than the last, and soon we’ll be seeing Pluto in much sharper detail.

In the meantime, let’s look ahead to what will be happening next week as New Horizons approaches and passes Pluto. Obviously there will be pictures everywhere – including here – but what will you be able to see *live* online? Is there going to be anything you can watch at the time?

Thankfully the answer is yes – NASA TV will be broadcasting New Horizons updates and press conferences regularly from the start of next week. Here’s the schedule, with times converted from ET to British Summer Time for you (if you’re in the UK…)


July 8 – 10
4.30pm – Final approach to Pluto; daily mission updates on NASA TV

July 11 – 12
4.30pm – Final approach to Pluto; live mission updates on NASA TV

Monday, July 13
4pm – 5pm – Media briefing: Mission Status and What to Expect; live on NASA TV
Tuesday, July 14
12.30 – 1pm – Arrival at Pluto Countdown Program; live on NASA TV

At approximately 12.49pm, New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the surface, after a journey of more than nine years and three billion miles. For much of the day, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control as it gathers data about Pluto and its moons.

The moment of closest approach will be marked during the live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.

1pm – 2pm– Media briefing, image release; live on NASA TV


Wednesday July 15th

01.30 – 02.15am – NASA TV program, Phone Home, broadcast from APL Mission Control

NASA TV will share the suspenseful moments of this historic event with the public and museums around the world. The New Horizons spacecraft will send a preprogrammed signal after the closest approach. The mission team on Earth should receive the signal by about 02.02am. ( When New Horizons “phones home,” there will be a celebration of its successful flyby and the anticipation of data to come in the days and months ahead.

02.30 – 03.00am – Media Briefing: New Horizons Health and Mission Status; live on NASA TV

8 – 9pm Media Briefing: Seeing Pluto in a New Light; live on NASA TV

Release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.


I’ve taken next Tuesday and Wednesday off work so I don’t have to miss a moment of The Big Day. So I’ll be sat here with my laptop on my knee, and probably the cat on my shoulder or chest, getting in the way. watching all the updates and media events as they happen, savouring every moment of this incredible adventure.

Finally for this time, if you have a smartphone, or a tablet, and you’re following the New Horizons mission, I can hugely recommend the “Pluto Safari” app…




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