As it makes its long-awaited approach to Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has detected the presence of frozen methane on the dwarf planet’s surface.
Scientists first observed the chemical compound on Pluto in 1976. Now, they have confirmed the presence of this chemical, using New Horizons’ first readings from the spacecraft’s infrared spectrometer.
Will Grundy, co-lead of New Horizons’ Surface Composition team, said that when the spacecraft gets nearer to Pluto, it will be able to establish if there is methane in other regions of the planet or in forms other than frozen.
The below clip, from New Horizons’ highest-resolution imager, shows Pluto and Charon as the spacecraft closes in.
Methane, an odorless, colorless gas exists underground and in the atmosphere on Earth. On Pluto, methane may be primordial, meaning it was inherited from the solar nebula from which the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago.
In other New Horizons news, on June 30, the scpacecraft tweaked its path toward the Pluto system, with a 23-second thruster burst. The third and final planned targeting maneuver of New Horizons’ approach phase to Pluto was also the smallest of the nine course corrections since the spaceceraft launched in January 2006.
The correction bumped up the spacecraft’s velocity by just 27 centimeters per second, about one-half mile per hour, adjusting its arrival time and position at a flyby close-approach target point approximately 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface.
“This maneuver was perfectly performed by the spacecraft and its operations team,” said mission principal investigator Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “Now we’re set to fly right down the middle of the optimal approach corridor.”
New Horizons is now about 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) from the Pluto system – some 2.95 billion miles (4.75 billion kilometers) from Earth.
Photo: New Horizons Mission Operations Center at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, flight controllers (from left) Chris Regan and Becca Sepan monitor data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on June 30, after a short course-correction maneuver refined New Horizons path toward a flyby of Pluto on July 14. NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute