Friday, July 24, 2015

Pluto's Unexpected Terrain; SETI, Radio, and Drums

Pluto's still in the news, as New Horizons starts sending data from its July 14 flyby. That will take more than a year, but there have already been surprises: including "not easy to explain terrain" near Pluto's equator.

Meanwhile, the DSCOVR Solar weather monitor sent back a snapshot of Earth; and Professor Stephen Hawking is supporting a new search for intelligent life in the universe.

I think the Royal Society in London's Breakthrough Initiatives group will collect interesting facts while listening for extraterrestrial radio broadcasts. But I also think that our neighbors, if any, could easily have been using wireless telegraphy when Oldowan tools were our high tech.
  1. Pluto: More Mountains
  2. DSCOVR's Blue Marble Picture: I Can See the Clouds Over My House
  3. Intelligent Life in the Universe: Still Searching
  4. "Not Easy to Explain Terrain"
  5. Like Drying Mud, a Lava Lamp: or Something Completely Different

Current Status

(From NASA/APL/Southwest Research Institute, used w/o permission.)
(New Horizons position at 1700 UTC/1200 Central Daylight Time. (CDT) (July 23, 2015))

NASA's New Horizons home page announced that they'll have a news conference/science update at 2 p.m. EDT (6:00 p.m. UTC) Friday, July 24 — five hours after this post shows up. As I said last week, this is a blog, not a news service. These folks have been updating fairly often, if you're looking for current information:
If you already know why I'm sure thinking isn't a sin, feel free to skip to Pluto: More Mountains, or Intelligent Life in the Universe: Still Searching — or get a cup of coffee, take a walk, whatever.

Earth Isn't Flat, Poetry isn't Science, and Curiosity isn't a Sin

I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin. I say that a lot.1

Then there's the notion that Dante stuck Ulysses in Hell because Christians think curiosity is bad.

Sure enough, an English translation of Dante's "Inferno" has Ulysses saying that he passed "the bound'ries not to be o'erstepp'd by man." (Canto 26)

But Dante didn't add 'thou shalt not inquire' to the Decalog.

Ulysses is in Malebolge, Dante's eighth circle of Hell. It's where the narrator runs into panderers and seducers, then folks guilty of excessive flattery. Next come simonists, followed by those guilty of divination, grafters, hypocrites, and thieves.

Ulysses and Diomedes are in the category after that: deceivers, those who gave false or corrupted advice for personal gain. They apparently wound up in the eighth circle's subdivision for fraudulent counselors because of their Trojan horse strategy. (August 1, 2014)

The last two parts of Dante's Malebolge is for scandalmongers and forgers. Curiosity isn't punished anywhere, or Dante would never have made it out of the pit: he kept asking questions. Anyway, although Dante's epic poem is great literature: that's all it is. It's not a "Church" document. (January 23, 2015; August 1, 2014)

Mapping Pluto

The Whale, that dark feature on Pluto's equator, has a new name: Cthulhu. It's anyone's guess what it'll be called, a few years from now.

I'm not even sure whether the "Cthulhu" label got submitted to the IAU: the International Astronomical Union, today's internationally recognized authority for the names of stars, planets, and anything else we find off-Earth. It's UAI, Union astronomique internationale, in French.

I talked about how TUC and CUT morphed into UTC, and that's another topic. (July 10, 2015)

I think the basic idea — cooperation across national borders — makes sense. But I wouldn't mind if the folks who are analyzing data from New Horizons, or their supervisors, had the final say.

I think The Donut and The Brass Knuckles will almost certainly get re-named.

Even if folks having conniptions over the unhealthy lifestyle implied by The Donut, or the frightfully violent Brass Knuckles, don't put the kibosh on those names — the IAU brass might not think they're stodgy enough. I don't know if they were even submitted to the IAU

Folks pick place names for quite a few reasons.

Dublin, for example, is what happened to dubh linn ("black pool") when the English tried pronouncing it. The city's name is Baile Átha Cliath ("town of the hurdled ford").

It's a fine, descriptive name; like Rockford, Grünwald (green forest), Death Valley, Round Prairie, and various Elbow Lakes.

Comstock, Minnesota, is named after Solomon Comstock, a big name in real estate, politics, and farm implement manufacturing about a century back now. Bolivia gets its name from Simón Bolívar, and San Francisco is named after St. Francis of Assisi. And I'm drifting off-topic.

For now, though, we've got unofficial names for an increasing number of features on Pluto. These maps, and links, may help you keep track of what's where. Then again, maybe they won't.

(From NASA/JHU-APL/Southwest Research Institute, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Pluto's surface visible from New Horizons, June 27 to July 3. Tombaugh Regio is the bright spot near the equator, 180 degrees East. The Whale/Cthulhu is the big dark patch on the equator, left/west of Tombaugh Regio.)

(From NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute, used w/o permission.)
(A closer look at The Whale/Cthulhu, that dark patch on Pluto's equator.)

(From Mika McKinnon, NASA/JHUAPL; via Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
("Map of Pluto, with (informal) names for some of the largest surface features"
(Mika McKinnon, New Horizons Scientist, NASA/JHUAPL))

(From Mika McKinnon, NASA/JHUAPL; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A closer look at The Brass Knuckles.)

More about places on Pluto:

Space Aliens, H. P. Lovecraft, and All That

Lovecraft's aliens, like the Great Race of Yith we meet in "The Shadow Out of Time," aren't at all like the cute little fellow in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

Lovecraft seemed to understand that non-human people might be quite unlike us. He also had a much firmer grasp than many writers of speculative fiction, on how big and old the universe is. (June 27, 2014)

I'd be astounded if we find solid evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the next few years: but I won't insist that we can't have neighbors, or that we must.

God's God, I'm not, and I'll take reality 'as is.' (June 27, 2014; November 7, 2014)

As a Catholic, I believe that God creates a good, ordered, and beautiful world. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32)

Not that spider crabs and goblin sharks are pretty.

Studying this world and thinking about what we find is part of being human. We can, using reason, see God's work in the universe: or not. We've got free will, and can decide what we do or don't believe. (Catechism, 35-36, 301, 303-306, 311, 1704, 1706, 1731)

I've been over that before. (November 21, 2014)

Bottom line: scientific discoveries are opportunities for greater admiration of God's greatness. (Catechism, 283)

1. Pluto: More Mountains

(From NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI, used w/o permission.)
("A newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto's Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain. This image was acquired ... July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible."
"NASA's New Horizons Finds Second Mountain Range in Pluto's 'Heart' "
Tricia Talbert, NASA (July 21, 2015)

"Pluto's icy mountains have company. NASA's New Horizons mission has discovered a new, apparently less lofty mountain range on the lower-left edge of Pluto's best known feature, the bright, heart-shaped region named Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region).

"These newly-discovered frozen peaks are estimated to be one-half mile to one mile (1-1.5 kilometers) high, about the same height as the United States' Appalachian Mountains. The Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) discovered by New Horizons on July 15 more closely approximate the height of the taller Rocky Mountains.

"The new range is just west of the region within Pluto's heart called Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain). The peaks lie some 68 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Norgay Montes.

"This newest image further illustrates the remarkably well-defined topography along the western edge of Tombaugh Regio...."
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News, wrote about this on Wednesday: combing NASA's article with "New Horizons probe zooms into Pluto's plains." (Jonathan Amos, BBC News (July 17, 2015))

I'll get back to Pluto's plains.

There's something going on where Sputnik Planum, the left/west part of Tombaugh Regio, on that picture's right, and the dark Whale/Cthulhu meet. Scientists aren't sure what's going on: no surprise, since we didn't know about these features a month ago.

They're pretty sure that the bright stuff is filling in old craters: like that circular feature, down and to the left of center.

Scientists think the bright area is new, geologically speaking: maybe under 100,000 years old. That's because it's got so few craters. Crater counting gives scientists a rough idea of how old a surface is.

Samples from Earth's moon tell us how old different spots on the surface are there: and assuming that cratering happened at about the same rate everywhere in the Solar System is reasonable. We'll know more about Pluto, when we've got physical samples from its surface. That could take a while.

2. DSCOVR's Blue Marble Picture: I Can See the Clouds Over My House

(From NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"New 'blue marble' picture delights"
BBC News (July 21, 2015)

"A new, full snapshot of our planet has been captured by a Nasa satellite.

"Such images, which show the Earth in its entirety, are known as 'Blue Marbles'...."
This image is from Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), at the the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrangian point, 930,000 miles/1,500,000 kilometers from Earth. Lagrangian points are a special solution to the three-body problem, and that's yet another topic.

DSCOVR's job is monitoring solar wind conditions, giving early warning of approaching coronal mass ejections, and observing Earth's atmosphere and surface. Plus, we get the occasional spectacular picture, like this one, taken July 6, 2015.

The Apollo 17 crew took the first "Blue Marble" photo December 7, 1972, on their way to Earth's moon. That's it, to the right: "among the most widely distributed images in human history." (Wikipedia)

More about DSCOVR, and pictures of Earth:

(From NASA, used w/o permission.)
(A closer look at part of the DSCOVR image. My house is under clouds, above the picture's center. July 6, 2015.)

3. Intelligent Life in the Universe: Still Searching

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Prof Hawking says intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos could already be aware of us"
(BBC News))
"Prof Stephen Hawking backs venture to listen for aliens"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (July 20, 2015)

"Prof Stephen Hawking has launched a new effort to answer the question of whether there is life elsewhere in space.

"The venture is said to be the biggest yet in support of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

"The 10-year effort will listen for broadcast signals from a million of the stars closest to Earth.

"The £64m ($100m) initiative was launched by the Breakthrough Initiatives group at the Royal Society in London.

"Speaking at the launch, Prof Hawking said: 'Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean.

" 'Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos - unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence. Either way, there is no bigger question. It's time to commit to finding the answer - to search for life beyond Earth.

" 'We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.'..."
Professor Hawking is a very smart man, but I think "we must know" is overstating it. The universe is a big place, and we may not have time to thoroughly explore every part of it.

For one thing, it looks like there's only enough stuff left to keep star formation going for about 1,000,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000,000 years. After the last stars burn though their fuel supply, we'll likely have a very serious energy crisis.

If this isn't the only habitable space-time continuum — and we can move between continua — the deadline might be extended, but we'd have a whole lot more territory to cover.

Some phenomena make more sense if we assume that there's more than one "universe," and I've been over that before. (September 26, 2014)

On the other hand, I think looking for life on other worlds makes sense.

Studying this universe is part of being human: so in that sense, we must keep looking around. (Catechism, 159, 283, 286-287, 2293)

Broadcast Signals: Slit Gongs, AM Radio, and Whatever is Next

Earth's moon and planets in the Solar system were as unreachable in the 19th century as planets circling other stars are today. Scientists were learning more about these other worlds, though, and thought they might be inhabited.

Humans are chatty creatures, so pretty soon folks were thinking up ways to communicate with Martians.

Carl Friedrich Gauss, or maybe someone else, suggested planting enormous square fields of rye or wheat, outlined in pine forests, forming a giant triangle in Siberia: visual proof that we knew about the Pythagorean theorem.

Joseph Johann von Littrow had pretty much the same idea, except he figured the Sahara would be a better 'blackboard.' von Littrow's proposal was to dig giant trenches, drawing 20-mile-wide shapes. Filled with water, topped off with kerosene, and ignited, these trenches could send a different signal each night. (Wikipedia)

Remember: radio and environmental impact statements hadn't been invented yet.

I think the Breakthrough Initiatives group's Breakthrough Listen project, scanning a fraction of the sky for "broadcast signals," will collect interesting data.

The assumption that our neighbors, if they exist, use modulated radio signals for long-distance communications — is an assumption. A big one.

As I said last month, Earth has been around for about 4,540,000,000 years, and the universe is about three times older. On that scale, a million years isn't much: 1/13,798th the age of the universe, or 1/4,540th Earth's age.

I'm in my mid-60s, so that fraction of my life is roughly one and three quarters to five days. Someone who had been born within a week of me would be almost exactly my age.

Even if our neighbors are only a million years 'older' or 'younger' than we are, their cutting-edge tech might be almond-shaped stone hand axes — or whatever we'll be developing a million years from now. (June 19, 2015)

I seriously doubt that talking drums, slit gongs, and the Inmarsat network are the ultimate communication technologies.

Earth's atmosphere is transparent at radio, and 'visible light,' frequencies, so it's a convenient part of the spectrum for ground-based astronomers. We might pick up radio signals from other folks.

Klemperer Rosettes?

However, I think we'd be better-advised to not assume that our neighbors are almost exactly our age. My guess, given how old the universe is, and the tiny fraction of that age we've been around, is that if we do have neighbors: they'll have been around for a very long time.

I know about the Fermi paradox, by the way, and don't think that civilizations self-destruct as soon as they develop steam power and credit cards. (April 24, 2015)

Folks with a somewhat less conventionally-pessimistic view of humanity's survivability have been thinking about what advanced civilizations might be like. Really advanced civilizations: not beginners like us, puttering along with fusion research and neurosynaptic cores.

The Kardashev scale, developed by astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, defines civilizations by how much energy they use. We're not quite in Kardashev's Type I, using all available energy on Earth. Type II civilizations use all energy emitted by their home world's star, a Type III civilization uses all energy emitted by its galaxy.

That sounds grandiose: but we've come a long way since Oldowan tools and wireless telegraphy were the latest thing in high tech; and I don't think we've reached the end of what's possible. (June 19, 2015; January 30, 2015)

Freeman Dyson gets credit for thinking of the "Dyson sphere:" a shell that surrounds a star, collecting all its energy. His "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation," published in 1960, deserves mention, but the idea is older:
"...Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated, and rifled of their prodigious stores of sub-atomic energy...."
("Star Maker," Chapter X A Vision of the Galaxy, Olaf Stapledon (1937), via
I think a serious search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe should include listening for radio signals. But I think we could also look for evidence of civilizations that are a tad further along than we are.

An obvious "WE'RE HERE" beacon would be a stellar Klemperer rosette: "a gravitational system of heavier and lighter bodies orbiting in a regular repeating pattern around a common barycenter." (Wikipedia)

A system of three class O and three class M stars, orbiting in a neat circle, couldn't be a natural phenomenon. Klemperer rosettes aren't stable. The slightest nudge will break their balance.

We can't move stars around, and keep them flying in formation: but someone out there might know how, and be willing to make it happen.

"Dyson spheres" wouldn't be particularly visible: but they'd be 'bright' in longer wavelengths, radiating energy that's been used on its way out from the central star.

Looking for anything that's fairly small, and not acting like a natural phenomenon, might be our best bet for finding neighbors.

There'll be false alarms, too, like the discovery of pulsars. (September 26, 2014)

4. "Not Easy to Explain Terrain"

(From NASA/JHU-APL/SWRI, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The mission team has so far released three close-up views, tied together in this mosaic for context by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo "
((BBC News))
"New Horizons probe zooms into Pluto's plains"
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (July 17, 2015)

"The American space agency's New Horizons probe has returned further images of Pluto that include a view of the dwarf planet's strange icy plains

"A region, which has been named after the Soviet Sputnik satellite, displays a flat terrain broken up into polygons.

"At the edges of these 20-30km-wide features are troughs filled with dark material and even small mounds.

"Scientists say it could be evidence of the surface bulging due to gentle heating coming from below.

"But it could just as easily be the result of some contraction process as materials vaporise into the atmosphere - not unlike how mud cracks form on Earth.

"Science team members say they are trying not to jump to early conclusions in their interpretations - certainly, not until they get more data down from the spacecraft.

" 'When I first saw the image of Sputnik plain I decided I was going to call it "not easy to explain terrain",' said Jeff Moore, who leads the geology, geophysics and imaging team on New Horizons...."
We could call the "not easy to explain terrain" NEET, but it'll probably have another name when scientists figure out what we're looking at.

A picture of Nix, one of Pluto's smaller moons, isn't as spectacular. Nix is about 15 pixels across. That picture, and a few others, gave scientists enough data to estimate its shape and size: about 40 kilometers.

Besides, before May 15, 2005, we didn't know Nix was there — and only recently got this good a look at Pluto.

As for Pluto's unexpected geography: I enjoy living in a universe where we keep finding new facets of reality. It's as if God created a world loaded with puzzle games for us to solve. (May 8, 2015; July 4, 2014)

A Carbon Monoxide Equatorial Ice Patch

("New Horizons detects a strong carbon monoxide signal in Pluto's 'heart' region"
(BBC News))
"...Other measurements by the probe concern its observations of Pluto's nitrogen-rich atmosphere, which models suggest it is probably losing at a rate of about 500 tonnes per hour. It is being stripped away by the stream of energetic, charged particles coming off the Sun.

"Pluto's diminutive size (2,370km diameter) means it does not have the gravity to hang on to the atmosphere - in the same way that a bigger world like Earth or even Mars can - and it flows into space, forming a long ionised tail going in the same direction as all those solar wind particles. New Horizons has sent back some early data on this process....

"...Other fascinating observations include a concentration of carbon monoxide ice in the western sector of the light-coloured region on Pluto that looks like a heart; and also some surface streaks that appear similar to the kind of erosion or deposition marks you get behind an obstacle when it sits in the path of a persistent wind...."
(BBC News)
That big patch of carbon monoxide ice isn't the only oddity on Pluto:
"Pluto: The Ice Plot Thickens"
NASA (July 15, 2015)

"The latest spectra from New Horizons Ralph instrument reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences from place to place across the frozen surface of Pluto.

" 'We just learned that in the north polar cap, methane ice is diluted in a thick, transparent slab of nitrogen ice resulting in strong absorption of infrared light,' said New Horizons co-investigator Will Grundy, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. In one of the visually dark equatorial patches, the methane ice has shallower infrared absorptions indicative of a very different texture. 'The spectrum appears as if the ice is less diluted in nitrogen,' Grundy speculated 'or that it has a different texture in that area.'..."
Tombaugh Regio was identified six decades back, as a bright spot on Pluto. It's not as bright now. That could be a seasonal change: about a quarter of Pluto's 'year' has elapsed since the first observation. Or maybe the fading is permanent: or part of a longer cycle.

Pluto's surface ranges in color from charcoal to white: as much contrast as Saturn's moon Iapetus.

Iapetus is an oddball moon in other ways, too. It's more than two dozen kilometers thicker across the equator, than pole-to pole: almost five percent of its average diameter. There's a 13-kilometer-high ridge running along part of its, too. And that's another yet again topic.

5. Like Drying Mud, a Lava Lamp: or Something Completely Different

(From NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute, used w/o permission.)
(Pluto's Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain). This image was taken July 14 at a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers), showing features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across. "The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image."
(NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute))
"NASA's New Horizons Discovers Frozen Plains in the Heart of Pluto's 'Heart'"
Dwayne Brown, Laurie Cantillo, NASA; Mike Buckley, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland; Maria Stothoff, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio (July 17, 2015)

"...In the latest data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, a new close-up image of Pluto reveals a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto's icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named 'Tombaugh Regio' (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

" 'This terrain is not easy to explain,' said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. 'The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.'

"This fascinating icy plains region — resembling frozen mud cracks on Earth — has been informally named 'Sputnik Planum' (Sputnik Plain) after the Earth's first artificial satellite. It has a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments, roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs. Some of these troughs have darker material within them, while others are traced by clumps of hills that appear to rise above the surrounding terrain. Elsewhere, the surface appears to be etched by fields of small pits that may have formed by a process called sublimation, in which ice turns directly from solid to gas, just as dry ice does on Earth...."
(BBC News)
"The blocky appearance of some features ... due to compression of the image..." mentioned in NASA's caption is a sort of thing you'll occasionally see in a digital television image. It's not in the original image, stored in New Horizons' memory.

Since the "blocky appearance" makes Sputnik Planum look like farmland, and will disappear when/if we get the uncompressed image — we may see claims of a "NASA coverup."

Remember the Face on Mars thing?

There really is a feature on Cydonia, between Arandas Crater and Bamberg Crater. From above, at a particular time of day, it looks a little like a face.

Much as I'd like to be around when — or if — we learn that we have, or had, neighbors: the Cydonian Face on Mars disappears in higher-quality pictures, and other times of day.

I'm quite sure it's no more artificial than the now-collapsed Great Stone Face on New Hampshire's Cannon Mountain: or Galle Crater's happy face. We're starting to trace some of the neural circuitry humans use for pattern recognition, and that's still another topic.

Getting back to Pluto's Sputnik Planum, scientists aren't sure how those irregular shapes formed. They've got two working theories, so far.

We may be looking at what happened when surface material shrank, leaving a pattern like the cracks in drying mud.

Or convection currents in a mix of frozen carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen could form those patterns: like a very slow-motion lava lamp. The convection would be driven by comparative warmth deep inside Pluto.

We'll know more, as New Horizons sends in more data. This image was taken when New Horizons was still 48,000 miles, 77,000 kilometers, from Pluto. It got within 7,800 miles, 12,500 kilometers, during the flyby: so there's much more to be seen.

Scientists spotted what look like dark streaks on Pluto's plains. They're a few miles long, and apparently point in the same direction. An obvious explanation is that they're made by wind.

Again, we'll know more as more data comes in.

New Horizons: Headed Toward the Stars

(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Diagram showing solar wind interacting with Pluto's atmosphere.)
"...The New Horizons Atmospheres team observed Pluto's atmosphere as far as 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) above the surface, demonstrating that Pluto's nitrogen-rich atmosphere is quite extended. This is the first observation of Pluto's atmosphere at altitudes higher than 170 miles above the surface (270 kilometers).

"The New Horizons Particles and Plasma team has discovered a region of cold, dense ionized gas tens of thousands of miles beyond Pluto — the planet's atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind and lost to space.

" 'This is just a first tantalizing look at Pluto's plasma environment,' said New Horizons co-investigator Fran Bagenal, University of Colorado, Boulder...."
Pluto's orbit takes it from 4,400,000,000 to more than 7,300,000,000 kilometers — 2,700,000,000 to 4,500,000,000 miles — from the Sun. Sunlight on Pluto isn't particularly bright — only about 150 to 450 times the light of the full Moon seen from Earth, under 1/800th as much as Earth's.

Although Pluto is receding from our sun now, its atmosphere is getting thicker. That's because Pluto's north polar regions are seeing sunlight for the the first time in 120 years.

A frozen nitrogen 'ice cap' is sublimating, turning to gas. It'll take decades to blow across Pluto and refreeze on Pluto's south pole. Not all the nitrogen atoms will get to the south pole. Some will escape Pluto's weak gravity, get ionized by sunlight, and blow away in the Solar wind.

We should keep getting data from New Horizons for years, as it passes through the Kuiper Belt, headed toward the stars.

There's much more left to learn:

1 As a Catholic, I must take Sacred Scripture seriously. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 101-133)

That emphatically does not mean I must believe that a long-dead Calvinist was right, about the moment of creation being nightfall before October 23, 4004 BC:


Bagsy's Soapbox said...

Brian I like your science philosophical articles. My guess about life in other solar systems on 'earth like' planets that the evolutionary process would be probably be very similar to life forms on Earth. But if there are other 'intelligent' life if they were intelligent would not bother to contact our mob!

Brian H. Gill said...

Thank you, John.

I think you're right, about evolutionary processes following the same (general) patterns. (I quoted Brother Guy Consolmagno's thoughts on this topic in today's post.)

I've speculated, occasionally, about what or who we might meet.

Physically, I suspect there are quite a few options. (Playing 'What If' With Fossils, July 2014 )

In a way, the really interesting differences might be psychological. And that's another topic. :)

Brigid said...

Missing end parenthesis: "The city's name is Baile Átha Cliath ("town of the hurdled ford"."

Missing word: "Even if our neighbors only a million years 'older' or 'younger' than we are,"

Missing period: "under 1/800th as much as Earth's"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...

Right. Found, fixed, and thanks, Brigid.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.