Press Conferences


New Horizons: Peering into Pluto's Past

Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

March 21, 2016


New Horizons Team Presents Latest Pluto Science Results at Planetary Conference 

Members of NASA’s New Horizons mission team will present nearly 40 scientific reports on the Pluto system this week during the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference near Houston. The scientists will discuss results included in the March 18 issue of the journal Science, as well as results gathered from analyses of new data since the Science papers were submitted.

“The New Horizons team has been inundated with high-quality data beaming back from our spacecraft, now out in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto,” says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “The findings we report this week at LPSC cover every aspect of the Pluto system, from its surface and atmosphere, to its origin and the nature and origin of its satellites. We’re excited to share these many results.”

The New Horizons team will discuss several noteworthy results with media on Monday, March 21, at noon CDT/1 p.m. EDT.  The briefing will be webcast live at http://livestream.com/viewnow/LPSC2016. Presenters and topics include:

Stern will also deliver a lecture, “The Exploration of Pluto,” on Tuesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. CDT.  The lecture is free and open to the public, and will be archived online. For the full schedule of live and archived Web events, see http://livestream.com/viewnow/LPSC2016.

New Horizons team members will be available for interviews at LPSC. Contact Mike Buckley of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory at (443) 567-3145 or michael.buckley@jhuapl.edu to schedule.

New Horizons is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute leads the science mission, payload operations, and encounter science planning.


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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Longest-Distance Planetary Radar Experiment

Dr. Cathy Olkin, New Horizons Deputy Project Scientist, Southwest Research Institute

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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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New Horizons used techniques across the electromagnetic spectrum to investigate Pluto, including radio waves that the spacecraft’s radio science experiment (REX) measures. The imaging data is in the visible and near infrared range, but there are many more ways to learn about the Pluto system.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Radar, a radio frequency technique, – has been used to investigate the surface properties of bodies across the solar system, but never beyond Saturn – until the New Horizons mission.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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In a bistatic radar experiment, the signal travels from a transmitter in one location, to a receiver in a separate location near the target object. In this case, the transmission came from NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna station, toward Pluto and the radio receiver on the New Horizons spacecraft.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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This figure shows the New Horizons radio science data, with the bistatic reflectance indicated.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Given the difficulty of radar measurements at such long distances, and that other objects in the Kuiper Belt are smaller than Pluto, the team expects this record to hold for some time – unless New Horizons breaks it at another Kuiper Belt object. Provided NASA approves an extended mission, New Horizons could observe a KBO named MU69 on January 1, 2019.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Pluto's Climate Zones

Dr. Richard Binzel, New Horizons Co-Investigator, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Like Earth, Pluto has tropical zones – they’re not the warmer tropics we’re used to on Earth, but these zones do drive Pluto’s climate. Source: Alissa Earle, MIT.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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An examination of Pluto’s long-term climate variations includes the finding that Pluto has both tropics and arctic regions. Source: Alissa Earle, MIT.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Pluto’s “tropical arctic” experiences both direct sunlight and prolonged periods of sunlight and darkness. Source: Richard Binzel and Alissa Earle, MIT (adapted from submission to Icarus).

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Pluto is currently between two extreme climate states.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Pluto is currently between two extreme climate states.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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There is a band within Pluto’s tropics that never experiences arctic winter or arctic summer.
Source: Richard Binzel and Alissa Earle, MIT (adapted from submission to Icarus).

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Evidence for Thicker Past Atmospheres on Pluto

Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, Southwest Research Institute

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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Characteristics of Pluto’s various climate states; the planet is currently between two climatic extremes.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Pluto’s surface vapor pressure, over the course of an orbital year (about 250 Earth years), during different climate epochs.

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Several surface features on Pluto – viewed in the informally named Sputnik Planum – may provide evidence of higher-pressure epochs. All scale bars are approximately 20 miles (30 kilometers) and images are oriented with north up. Image sources: “a” and “b” are from the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) at  approximately 320 meters/pixel; “c” is from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at approximately 130 meters/pixel.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Evidence for Extensive Glacial Activity

Dr. Orkan Umurhan, New Horizons Research Scientist/Senior NPP, NASA Ames Research Center

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Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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New Horizons scientists have spotted evidence of massive, recent downslope glacial flow in Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum region.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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The glacial flow observed by New Horizons scientists appears to move toward the shoreline of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum; active glaciation is occurring in Pluto’s permanent tropics zone.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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The glacial flow observed by New Horizons scientists appears to move toward the shoreline of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum; active glaciation is occurring in Pluto’s permanent tropics zone.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Pluto’s ridges and troughs indicate past glacial flow and erosion.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Age-Dating Pluto's Satellite System

Dr. Kelsi Singer, New Horizons Postdoctoral Researcher, Southwest Research Institute

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Evidence has long pointed to a giant collision creating Pluto’s system of moons, as opposed to the small moons being captured objects. Evidence includes the moons’ co-planar, circular orbits and their similar brightness (which is brighter than most Kuiper Belt objects).

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Crater measurements help scientists estimate the “age” of a planetary body’s surface.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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Crater measurements help scientists estimate the “age” of a planetary body’s surface. These images of Pluto’s smaller moons were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) on the New Horizons spacecraft.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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