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Tag Archives: Pluto

AT 00:45 GMT on 18 March 2011, NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) spacecraft became the first probe to enter into the planet Mercury’s orbit.

An artist’s impression of MESSENGER in Mercury’s orbit.

MESSENGER was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, back on 3 August 2004. To finally get into a position to be captured by the smallest planet’s gravity, MESSENGER had to complete no less than six planetary flybys: one of Earth, two of Venus and three of Mercury itself.

During its mission from here on in, MESSENGER will orbit Mercury approx. 730 times, and will capture some spectacular pictures of the planet with orbits on average just 36 million miles (58 million Km) from the Sun.

Because of its close proximity to the Sun, Mercury’s surface temperature can reach over 427˚C, which is hot enough to melt lead. So to cope with these extreme mercury levels (couldn’t resist) MESSENGER has had special heat deflecting shields attached to it. But that’s just when it is facing the Sun. The night side of Mercury has to suffer temperatures of a chilling -183˚C.

MESSENGER is only the second spacecraft to visit the innermost planet. Back in 1974/5, Mariner 10 mapped around 45% of Mercury’s surface. It is now MESSENGER’s job to map the rest. Hopefully we’ll be getting some more great images of Mercury like the one below, which MESSENGER took on a previous flyby.

Meanwhile, deep in the Solar System another NASA probe reached an important milestone. The New Horizons spacecraft crossed the orbit of the planet Uranus on the very same day MESSENGER entered Mercury’s orbit at 22:00 GMT. But unfortunately no pictures could be taken because Uranus was nearly 3.9 billion Km away at the time.

New Horizons is just over five years and two months into its mission to the dwarf planet Pluto, and will be the first probe to reach the ex-planet. On its long voyage across the Solar System, New Horizons crossed Mars’s orbit on 7 April 2006, got a gravitational assist from Jupiter on 28 February 2007 (and took some awesome pictures of the gas-giant and its moons to boot), passed Saturn’s orbit on 8 June 2008, and reached half-distance on 29 December 2009. New Horizons will cross Neptune’s orbit on 24 August 2014.

Pluto will finally be visited on 14 July 2015 at 11:47 UTC at a distance of 13,695 Km. 14 minutes later, New Horizons will flyby Pluto’s three moons: Charon, Hydra and Nix. The probe will then do as Pioneers 10 and 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 did and leave the Solar System. This is expected to happen in 2029, 99 years after Pluto was discovered.

An artist’s impression of New Horizons’ Pluto flyby.

A day later (19 March) it was the Moon that made the headlines as it made its closest approach to Earth in almost 20 years. The Supermoon appeared about 14% bigger and up to 30% brighter than a normal full moon in the cleat Saturday night sky.

I for one wasn’t going to miss it, and went up into my garden with my plucky digital camera. I go a few pictures, but they are far off being world class. The one below is the one I am most proud of.  I think I set it to black and white, and was quite stunned to find that I had captured some of the detail on the lunar surface.

Eat your heart out Hubble.

And finally, today (23 March 2011) is the tenth anniversary of the deorbit of the Russian space station Mir.

Mir in it’s prime.

After years of service, it became unfeasible for the Russians to fund both it and the International Space Station (ISS). So Mir was brought back down to Earth over Fiji in a fire ball, which as an eight year-old boy I found rather exciting.

One ex-space station.


Formula 1 has again changed its point scoring system. The top 10 drivers still score points, but how many has now altered. It now goes: 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1. The top 3 drivers were originally going to score: 25-20-15, but that is no different in the gap between the points as: 10-8-6 was.

The first race of the year in Bahrain will be run on an even longer track layout. The F1 cars will race on the endurance circuit, making the lap now 6.299 Km (3.914 mi) long. This means the race will now be run over just 49 laps, making it the second longest track of the season behind Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps.

The newish Bahrain track layout

Nick Heidfeld has been named as Mercedes’ test driver for this season. This makes it even more likely that he is never going to win a Grand Prix. He has 167 starts to his name, and has scored a record 219 points without a win. The driver with the most winless starts in history is Italian Andrea de Cesaris with 208.

Also, from now on the drivers who make it to the third part of qualifying must now start the race on the tyres they qualified on. Nothing like shaking it up is there?

And finally in this section, 1992 F1 World Champion and 1993 CART World Series Champion Nigel Mansell has said that he and his sons Greg and Leo all hope to compete together as ‘Team Mansell’ at this year’s Le Mans 24 hour race. Mansell, 56, will race in his first Le Mans if his team’s application is accepted. He has stated that he and his sons also want to race in September’s Silverstone 1,000Km race. The car has to be No.5, it just has to be.

In Rugby Union, the 6 Nations begins on Saturday with Ireland vs. Italy and England vs. Wales. Ireland won the Grand Slam last year, and will be hoping to be the first team to win back to back Grand Slams since Italy were included in 2000. I like the 6 Nations because you feel this sense of national pride that you just don’t get with football. Probably because we are playing the home nations and France and Italy. COME ON ENGLAND!

To worlds far beyond our own now. Dwarf Planet Pluto has astounded astronomers by turning redder. This is probably due to seasonal changes taking place on it. Pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope have shown a significant change in colour than in previous snaps. The New Horizons probe is currently on its way to Pluto, and will fly by it and fly by it and its moons: Charon, Hydra and Nix on the 14th July 2015. After this momentous fly by (Pluto has never been seen up close before), New Horizons will fly into and out of the Kuiper Belt and ultimately leave the Solar System in 2029.