Friday, March 09, 2007

Having A Look At Io And Pluto

I know I've written about some serious Earth-based stuff lately, and it might be a bit jarring to jump back out into space, but this is just so cool and interesting. I had to let you see it too. Dr. Tony Phillips, has the latest from NASA's ventures in space exploration, complete with pictures. For those of you who don't know, NASA has a spacecraft headed out to Pluto. The craft is named New Horizons, and it's carrying an eight-inch telescope called LORRI, short for Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. They're looking to snap some high resolution pics of the recently-demoted dwarf planet and its moons, sometime around 2015. To get her there on schedule, NASA decided that New Horizons needed a speed boost on the way out to the fringes of our solar system, so they swung her by Jupiter, to slingshot around the giant planet and pick up 9,000 mph of extra giddy-up. This will cut five years off the trip--well worth the detour, wouldn't you say?

Now, since New Horizons was doing a flyby of the big guy anyway, of course NASA seized the opportunity to take a few photos of Jupiter and the multiple moons hanging out in the vicinity. In fact, LORRI didn't waste any time, snapping a whole gallery of images of Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. They're all interesting in their own ways, but it's Io that captured the attention of NASA's old hands. LORRI caught Io's Tvashtar volcano in fine form; the erupting plume image is the best "longtime Jupiter experts -- have ever seen." No kidding--the plume rises 180 miles above the surface of the moon! (I almost said "into the air," but that doesn't quite work on Io, now does it?) If you follow the link to the article, the photo is there for your viewing pleasure, along with a link to other pics that LORRI shot in the neighborhood.

One of the rather amazing things about this eruption on Io is what the photo shows happens when the plume gets that high in that environment. Dr. Phillips quotes Andy Cheng, a scientist from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab:

"The patchy and filamentous structure seen in the Tvashtar plume suggests to me that condensation from gas to solid particulates is occurring," he says. In other words, the gas could be crystallizing in the cold space above Io to form a kind of sulfurous snow.

Volcanoes spewing snow? It is an alien world.

Alien, indeed. In case I haven't mentioned it before (of course I have)--I want to go there!! Things are happening out there, and I'm missing them--or, at least I would be, if it weren't for New Horizons. Fortunately, LORRI was there at the right place at the right time; although, the chances were pretty good that LORRI would catch something interesting no matter when she showed up. Apparently, this kind of action isn't rare on this particular Jupitorial satellite. Io, is a rather volcanically active little guy. According to Dr. Phillips:
Gravitational forces exerted on Io by Jupiter and the other large moons raise tidal bulges in Io's solid crust 30 meters high. This flexing action, like the flexing of a paperclip, makes Io's interior molten hot and, as a result, the moon has hundreds of active volcanoes.
There's a nifty little animated graphic with Dr. Phillips' article which demonstrates all that tidal bulging. It looks a lot like a tennis ball flexing, when a video camera catches it in slow motion after it's been hit with a good strong forehand.

As New Horizons heads out to the farther reaches of our little corner of the galaxy, there are ever more discoveries to be made. Pluto awaits, and NASA plans to closely examine our little dwarf friend, and his immediate family:
"Future LORRI images of Pluto and Charon will have even more detail and higher resolution, because New Horizons will bring us at least a thousand times closer than we came to Io," notes Cheng. Of course, no one has any idea what LORRI will see, because Pluto has never been visited by a space probe. "That's why we're going."
One more interesting thing about Pluto and Charon: Wikipedia says that Pluto may get reclassified again, and Charon may come in for a bigger piece of the spotlight:
Pluto and its largest satellite, Charon, could be considered a binary system because they are closer in size than any of the other known celestial pair combinations in the solar system, and because the barycenter of their orbits does not lie within either body. However, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has yet to formalize a definition for binary dwarf planets, so Charon is currently regarded as a moon of Pluto.
It might be hard for Pluto to face yet another change in status, but then again, maybe not. Pluto and Charon are close, you know, and Pluto may be happy to see his buddy get a little more attention. Besides, being a binary system would make Pluto kind of unique, in our neck of the woods anyway, and it might compensate for getting kicked out of the big boys' club. I'm not saying that Pluto has an ego. He may be perfectly humble, but if I was recently told I couldn't hang with the cool kids anymore, it would probably make me feel better if someone made a fuss over me for awhile, especially if I got to start a new club with my best friend.