Hello, stranger: New Horizons returns best ever images of Pluto

Pluto and Charon HubbleThat’s a picture taken from my Pocket Dorling Kindersley Space Facts book, published in 1995. Back then, that was the clearest image we had of Pluto and its moon Charon.

There have been so many unknowns around Pluto, even in recent memory. It has long been a mysterious place.

Which is what makes the images from New Horizons so exciting – we get a proper look at an old friend for the first time.


These are vast sheets of water ice in Sputnik Planum, a frozen plain bordered by the al-Idrisi mountains in Pluto’s northern hemisphere. It’s just one of the images from New Horizon’s nearest approach of Pluto on July 14, which reveal the ex-planet to be far more geologically interesting than that Hubble snap suggests.

“The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations,” said John Spencer, a New Horizons science team member.

At a resolution of about 80 metres per pixel, the images are six times more detailed than anything we’ve seen before. It’ll take until late next year to get everything back, but unless we go back, these are going to be the best pictures we get of Pluto.

New Horizons’ next stop will be small Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, which hangs around in orbit nearly a billion miles past Pluto. It’ll reach 2014 MU69, also known as Potential Target 1, on January 1, 2019.

New Horizons Pluto

Thanks again, Pluto. You’ve been great.


Go boldly, LISA Pathfinder

Here’s footage of the LISA Pathfinder launch, which happened at 4.04am GMT this morning. More to follow…

Update: December 11, 22:46

Fifteen years after the mission was approved, on December 3 the European Space Agency (ESA) launched LISA Pathfinder, a spacecraft that’ll test the waters for a grand experiment seeking evidence of gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space-time.

The original date of launch was almost auspicious – it was delayed to a day after the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicted the existence of such gravitational waves. Who said scientists can’t be romantic?

Ripples in space-time are created by the collision of huge bodies in space, such as galaxies or supermassive black holes. They’ve never been directly observed, though there are teams looking out for them from Earth.

The purpose of LISA Pathfinder is to check whether we’d be able to pick up these ripples in space-time with our experiment setup.

Source: ESA–C.Carreau

The spacecraft, currently orbiting the Earth, contains two identical 2kg gold-platinum cubes separated by 38cm. The cubes will be set in perfect freefall when Pathfinder reaches its final destination, at a point between the Earth and the Sun where they’ll be isolated from all external forces but gravity.

Pathfinder will see if we can achieve the freefall. In the real experiment, which will go ahead in 2034, a set of lasers will be bounced off three cubes in freefall, separated from each other by 5 million km, to detect deviations in their motion to the accuracy of a trillionth of a metre.

The craft will reach its intended orbit, 1.5 million kilometres away from the Earth around a sweet spot called Lagrange Point 1, next February.

Welcome to Kicks From Science!

Hello everyone! So glad you could make it! Take a load off, make yourself comfy! I’ll put on a pot of tea…

While that’s brewing, I’ll explain why we’re all here.

Kicks From Science is a little outpost for people who miss their science lessons. Soon to come in this receptacle will be the odd (sometimes sideways) look at science in the news, a few suggestions for field trips you can take in London (because that’s where I am) and beyond (because that’s where I’ll be sometimes), and there’ll be some fun and games thrown in too, because science is all about play. With the addition of grants, capital funding, pool parties etc.

Speaking of play, here’s Jas Mann of Babylon Zoo doing Spaceman on Top of the Pops in (probably) 1996. Remember him? If you want to keep your childhood memories pristine and intact, don’t read the subtitles.

See you soon, Leonie