Pluto Might Have Clouds Hovering Above Its Surface
BY Kirstin Fawcett
March 4, 2016
Last summer the New Horizons spacecraft whizzed by Pluto, capturing stunning images of canyons, ice mountains, and moons. Now, New Scientist reports that in unreleased emails, NASA researchers suggest that individual clouds might be hovering above the dwarf planet's surface.
NASA has previously shared shots showing layers of haze stretching above Pluto’s ice-capped peaks. These images hinted that Pluto’s atmosphere was more complex than we’d previously known, New Scientist says. In September 2015, however, scientists noticed "cloud-like" figures in one image. It was hard to tell whether they cast shadows, so the jury was still out as to their exact nature.
Then just days ago on March 1, John Spencer, a scientist with the Southwest Research Institute, sent an email to the team with a picture from the New Horizons mission attached. In it he wrote, “In the first image an extremely bright low altitude limb haze above south-east Sputnik on the left, and a discrete fuzzy cloud seen against the sunlit surface above Krun Macula (I think) on the right."
NASA has stayed mum on their findings, and only briefly mentions the possibility of clouds in a forthcoming paper for the journal Science called “The Atmosphere of Pluto as Observed by New Horizons.” These tantalizing images are likely extremely new, and since it takes a while for the probe to transmit data back to Earth, space lovers and scientists alike probably won’t know the true nature of the mysterious fuzzy spots for quite some time. To see more images of these potential clouds, check out New Scientist's full article.
Carl Sagan was perhaps America’s most beloved scientific visionary since Albert Einstein. Both a gifted astronomy researcher and an incredible communicator, he brought the wonders of the universe to the masses with his popular TV series Cosmos and books like the Pulitzer Prize–winning Dragons of Eden and Pale Blue Dot. His only novel, Contact, later became a sci-fi movie starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. Here are a few things you might not know about the scientist, TV star, and amateur turtleneck model.
1. HARVARD PASSED ON HIRING HIM.
After Sagan served five years at the esteemed university as an assistant professor, Harvard denied him tenure in 1967, in part because one of his mentors at the University of Chicago derided his work as needlessly wordy and useless. He took a job at Cornell instead, where he stayed on as a professor until his death in 1996.
2. HE DICTATED ALL OF HIS WRITING TO AN AUDIO RECORDER.
Carl Sagan standing with a model of the Viking Lander.
JPL via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Sagan was an avid self-editor. A total of 20 drafts of Sagan’s 1994 book Pale Blue Dot exist today in the Library of Congress, each filled with handwritten edits, annotations, and revisions by the author. However, he drafted all of his writing—even grant proposals—by dictating his ideas onto a cassette. The contents were then transcribed for him and returned for editing.
3. HE CONSIDERED WRITING A CHILDREN’S BOOK CALLED HOW DO BIRDS FLY?
In 1993, Sagan brainstormed a long list of possible children’s books for a series structured around the theme of “why?” Other potential ideas included Why Is It Warm In Summer?, Why Are There Lakes?, and What Is Air?
4. HE DIDN’T LIKE THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM.
Sagan argued against funding NASA’s Space Shuttle program in favor of more robotic exploration of the farther reaches of space. “That’s not space exploration,” he said in an interview about the space shuttle program’s week-long orbits. “Space exploration is going to other worlds.” A space station would only be worth it, he argued, if it was preparing humans for long-term journeys to space, he told Charlie Rose in 1995.
5. HE WAS AN EARLY CRUSADER AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE.
Carl Sagan with the other founders of the Planetary Society in the 1970s.
JPL via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Sagan’s 1960 Ph.D. thesis concerned the atmosphere of Venus. His theoretical model showed that the planet’s extremely high surface temperatures were due to the greenhouse effect of an atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and water vapor. In his book Cosmos, he wrote, “The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.”
6. HE HAS AN ARCHIVE IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ENDOWED BY THE CREATOR OF FAMILY GUY.
Part of the Carl Sagan Papers in the Library of Congress.
After Sagan appeared in several successful spots on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Carson saw fit to send up the scientist’s signature style (turtleneck included) in a parody sketch.
Carson’s exaggerated use of “billions and billions” would later become associated with the astronomer, though he didn’t use it himself. However, Sagan did talk about large numbers quite a lot, as this supercut shows.
8. HE AND ANN DRUYAN DATED FOR ONE PHONE CALL—AND WERE ENGAGED BEFORE HANGING UP.
Sagan and Druyan, who would create the TV show Cosmos together, fell in love while working on the Voyager message. The courtship was exceedingly brief, as NPR's Radiolab describes:
“After searching endlessly for a piece of Chinese music to put on the record, Druyan had finally found a 2500-year-old song called ‘Flowing Stream.’ In her excitement, she called Sagan and left a message at his hotel. At that point, Druyan and Sagan had been professional acquaintances and friends, but nothing more. But an hour later, when Sagan called back, something happened. By the end of that call, Druyan and Sagan were engaged to be married."
9. HE WANTED TO LEGALIZE POT.
Under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” Sagan wrote a 1969 essay for Time magazine about the personal benefits he’d seen from cannabis use. Then in his mid-30s, he admitted to smoking throughout the prior decade. “I find that today a single joint is enough to get me high,” he wrote, going on to observe that marijuana had enhanced his appreciation for art and music. He concluded that “the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
10. HE THOUGHT STAR TREK WAS TOO WHITE.
“In a global terrestrial society centuries in the future, the ship’s officers are embarrassingly Anglo-American. In fact, only two of 12 or 14 interstellar vessels are given non-English names, Kongo and Potemkin,” he wrote in a piece about the impact of science fiction on his life in The New York Times in 1978.
11. HE WANTED US TO LEAVE MARS ALONE.
Despite his passion for exploring space, Sagan argued for the preservation of Mars even if it meant limiting our exploration of the planet. In Cosmos, Sagan declared:
“If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.”
Like many Americans, astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei got up and went to work this morning. But instead of an office, their jobs took them on a walk outside the International Space Station. If that sounds more exciting than what you’re doing at the moment, you can watch their progress live on NASA’s website.
The spacewalk, which commenced the morning of October 5 at 8 a.m. EDT and is expected to last over six hours, is the first of three NASA plans to livestream during the month of October. On this mission, Bresnik, Expedition 53's commander, and Vande Hei, a flight engineer, are replacing one of the motorized lathes on the station’s robotic arm. The Latching End Effectors as they’re called are used to grab cargo vehicles and payloads that arrive at the station.
Bresnik has worked aboard the ISS since July and Vande Hei since September. The pair will don their spacesuits again for NASA’s second livestreamed spacewalk of the month on October 10. On October 18, Bresnik will be leading the third spacewalk and he’ll be assisted by flight engineer Joe Acaba. If you missed this event, you can follow NASA Live for more streams of spacewalks, cargo craft launches, and the occasional orbiter disintegrating in Saturn's atmosphere.