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article imageEssential Science: What would landing on Pluto be like?

By Tim Sandle     Jan 30, 2017 in Science
This week’s Essential Science takes a step into speculative science (fiction) and discusses some new research that wonders what landing on the surface of the dwarf planet Pluto would be like.
The discussion does not stray as far as to imagine what some future astronaut might find, but it does weigh-up the conditions that a future space probe might experience should NASA send a spacecraft close to the edge of the solar system with the aim of landing on Pluto.
Pluto (minor-planet designation: 134340 Pluto) remain an object of mystery. The dwarf planet is located in the Kuiper belt, forming part of a ring of bodies situated beyond the last main planet in the solar system: Neptune. Pluto was originally classed as a full planet, this changed when another ‘dwarf planet’ called Eris was discovered in the Kuiper belt in 2005. Given that Eris is 27 percent more massive than Pluto, the status of Pluto was subsequently downgraded by the International Astronomical Union.
Pluto remains the second most massive dwarf planet and it stands as the tenth most massive object in the solar system. The planet is largely composed of ice and rock. The dwarf planet has a characteristic eccentric and inclined orbit. Pluto has five known moons, of which Charon is the largest satellite.
Pluto By Moonlight: On July 14  New Horizons mission scientists will soon obtain the first images of...
Pluto By Moonlight: On July 14, New Horizons mission scientists will soon obtain the first images of the night region of Pluto, using only the light from Charon, itself softly illuminated by a Sun 1,000 times dimmer than it is at Earth.
JHUAPL / SwRI
Our understanding of the surface conditions on Pluto are largely drawn from information collated from the New Horizons spacecraft, after the probe made its fly-by of the dwarf planet during the summer of 2015. The craft provide an assortment of new images and readings of the planet’s landscapes.
New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe, launched in 2006. The probe was designed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (and the Southwest Research Institute. The primary mission was to visit and to collect data relating to the Pluto system, with a secondary mission to study other Kuiper belt objects. On July 14, 2015, the probe flew 12,500 kilometers above the surface of Pluto and this provided a rich stream of data.
The New Horizon images provided previously unseen images of of Pluto’s surface formations. This included the so-called heart of Pluto, which are bands of dark red rocky terrains that occur across the surface.
Pluto s moon Charon as seen by New Horizons at  distance of 500 000 kilometers. A darkish patch simi...
Pluto's moon Charon as seen by New Horizons at distance of 500,000 kilometers. A darkish patch similar to those on Pluto can clearly be seen towards Charon's north-west polar region.
John Hopkins University
To help with public science education, NASA has recently compiled a global mosaic made up of digital images of the planet. These images make use of three filter colors. These images were taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera, which is part of the New Horizons mainframe.
These new images about Pluto, according to Laboratory Roots, provide the best indication yet of what the surface of Pluto is like and whether it is possible to land a future probe on the surface. The good news is that such a landing is, at least in theory, possible.
The new images reveal that Pluto’s color patterns are more extensive than previously thought, with similar colors and details seen throughout across entire planet. The image resolution is good, at 260 feet (80 meters) per pixel.
Further details can be seen in the following video, put together by NASA scientists:
According to NASA the video tour runs: “Starting with hummocky, cratered uplands at top, the view crosses over parallel ridges of “washboard” terrain, chaotic and angular mountain ranges, cellular plains, coarsely “pitted” areas of sublimating nitrogen ice, zones of thin nitrogen ice draped over the topography below, and dark mountainous highlands scarred by deep pits.”
Those images offer an improved understanding of what the surface of Pluto looks like and give NASA the data to begin to simulate what it might look like to land on Pluto. Meanwhile, New Horizon's spacecraft has gone deeper into space. The craft is now 436,986,008 kilometers beyond the dwarf planet and it is continuing to explore the Kuiper Belt.
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This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week the subject was, post-Ebola, a review of the next potential viral threats facing the planet. The week before we looked at the use of bacteria to produce a range of industrially important chemicals.
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