Next Week We'll See Pluto Up Close for the First Time in History


In just five days, we Earthlings will see Pluto up close for the first time—and you can watch it live. In fact, start watching NASA TV now. There's already much to see and learn. 

On July 14 at 7:49 a.m. ET, the New Horizons probe will be just 7800 miles above Pluto. That's less than the distance between New York City and Hong Kong. It traveled for nine years and 3 billion miles to get this close.

Today, July 9, the probe is about 3.5 million miles from Pluto. Already we're seeing better images of the ice-covered, atmosphere-evaporating dwarf planet than we've ever seen before.

The public has always had an intense affection for Pluto; consider the surprisingly emotional outcry when it was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union in 2006. Is Pluto finally returning our love? The photo above, taken July 7 by the probe's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), appears to show a giant heart at the lower right.

We're kidding, but the "heart" is notable because it's one of several planetary features that scientists at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which is operating the New Horizons mission for NASA, are seeing for the first time—and giving nicknames to while awaiting more precise data. (They've also identified a "whale" and a "donut.")

These images are only going to get better—500 times better, in fact. As the probe closes in on Pluto and its moons (most notably Charon), some images will have 500 times higher resolution. No more "little pixelated blobs seen from 3 billion miles away, but real worlds, with complexity and diversity, high definition and in color," enthuses New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver in the July 8 daily mission update—and who is downright giddy with excitement. (We at mental_floss are right there with you, Dr. Weaver.)

Beyond images, the mission aims to collect data on the surface chemical compositions of both Pluto and Charon by taking 64,000 "footprints" of each body. The probe will also gather data on Pluto's atmosphere, temperature, and pressure, which change depending on its proximity to the sun during its 248-Earth-year orbit.

So here's what's happening over the next few days as New Horizons makes its final approach. Scientists will take optical navigation data to make sure the probe is on the right trajectory to hit the optimal position, time, and lighting conditions to secure the best data from the flyby. Through July 13, you can check in daily at 11:30 a.m. ET on NASA TV for updates, images, and live briefings.

On July 14, the channel will broadcast a live countdown beginning at 7:30 a.m. to the moment of closest approach at 7:49 a.m. For much of the day, New Horizons will be out of communication with mission control as it gathers data about Pluto and its moons.

The next day, the real fun begins as scientists begin to study the data—and NASA releases more images to the public.

In the meantime, you can find your "Pluto Time" twice a day, no matter where you are on Earth. (As NASA puts it: "It's always Pluto time somewhere.") At dawn and dusk, there's a moment when the light on Earth is similar to Pluto at noon. People are sharing their images on Twitter and Instagram.

Check back with mental_floss for updates both before and after July 14. We expect to see some fantastic sights in the next couple of weeks—and beyond. After its Pluto flyby, New Horizons is headed for the Kuiper Belt, a gigantic zone of icy bodies and mysterious small objects orbiting beyond Neptune. 

How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain

From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

Neutron Star Collision Sheds Light on the Strange Matter That Weighs a Billion Tons Per Teaspoon
Two neutron stars collide.
Two neutron stars collide.

Neutron stars are among the many mysteries of the universe scientists are working to unravel. The celestial bodies are incredibly dense, and their dramatic deaths are one of the main sources of the universe’s gold. But beyond that, not much is known about neutron stars, not even their size or what they’re made of. A new stellar collision reported earlier this year may shed light on the physics of these unusual objects.

As Science News reports, the collision of two neutron stars—the remaining cores of massive stars that have collapsed—were observed via light from gravitational waves. When the two small stars crossed paths, they merged to create one large object. The new star collapsed shortly after it formed, but exactly how long it took to perish reveals keys details of its size and makeup.

One thing scientists know about neutron stars is that they’re really, really dense. When stars become too big to support their own mass, they collapse, compressing their electrons and protons together into neutrons. The resulting neutron star fits all that matter into a tight space—scientists estimate that one teaspoon of the stuff inside a neutron star would weigh a billion tons.

This type of matter is impossible to recreate and study on Earth, but scientists have come up with a few theories as to its specific properties. One is that neutron stars are soft and yielding like stellar Play-Doh. Another school of thought posits that the stars are rigid and equipped to stand up to extreme pressure.

According to simulations, a soft neutron star would take less time to collapse than a hard star because they’re smaller. During the recently recorded event, astronomers observed a brief flash of light between the neutron stars’ collision and collapse. This indicates that a new spinning star, held together by the speed of its rotation, existed for a few milliseconds rather than collapsing immediately and vanishing into a black hole. This supports the hard neutron star theory.

Armed with a clearer idea of the star’s composition, scientists can now put constraints on their size range. One group of researchers pegged the smallest possible size for a neutron star with 60 percent more mass than our sun at 13.3 miles across. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists are determining that the biggest neutron stars become smaller rather than larger. In the collision, a larger star would have survived hours or potentially days, supported by its own heft, before collapsing. Its short existence suggests it wasn’t so huge.

Astronomers now know more about neutron stars than ever before, but their mysterious nature is still far from being fully understood. The matter at their core, whether free-floating quarks or subatomic particles made from heavier quarks, could change all of the equations that have been written up to this point. Astronomers will continue to search the skies for clues that demystify the strange objects.

[h/t Science News]


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