The 'Fish Out of Water' Blog

written by Tom Edathikunnel

Month: August, 2014

NASA’s New Horizon Spacecraft Gives Earth the Latest View of Pluto

Pluto & Charon

Beyond the rocky planets of our inner solar system and the gaseous giants of its outer reaches, lies the Kuiper Belt, a massive and unexplored area of space littered with chunks of rock, metal, and frozen volatiles of methane, ammonia, and water. Within this mysterious area of space is Pluto, the dwarf planet which has been virtually invisible until now.

NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft is taking a magnificent new look at the Pluto system and is set to meet this dwarf planet and its moons in the summer of 2015. Equipped with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), this onboard telescope has been capturing spectacular movies of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. The 12 images (above) that make of this ground breaking compilation were taken between July 19th – 24th, from a distance of 267 million miles (429 million kilometers). Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons, is approximately 1,207 kilometers in diameter and orbits at approximately 11,200 miles (18,000 kilometers) above the dwarf planet’s surface.

Pluto and Charon IIPluto’s other four satellites, Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos, are still too faint to be seen by New Horizon but will soon appear in images over the course of the next year as the craft approaches the Plutonian system.

These images mark the first look at the distant orbiting body, shedding new light on the virtually unknown entity. “The image sequence showing Charon revolving around Pluto set a record for close range imaging,” said New Horizon’s mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern to NASA. “We will smash that record again and again starting in January as approach operations begin.”

Distant encounter operations begin on January 4th, 2015 as New Horizon approaches Pluto. As the craft draws closer to the Kuiper Belt, scientist will get a new perspective on the history and chemical composition of our solar system as well as a deeper look onto this virtually unknown world.

 

Images:

New Horizons Spies Charon Orbiting Pluto” published on August 7, 2014 by John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Latest Fossil Evidence Suggests a Feathered Dinosaur Ancestry

Illustration by Andrey Atuchin & National Geographic

Illustration by Andrey Atuchin

 

The wondrous images of dinosaurs roaming a prehistoric Earth are quickly reforming as new evidence of their appearance and uniquely evolved specialties are discovered. One of the latest and most interesting developments is the evidence that a number of dinosaur species possessed a variety of feathers.

While some species are known to have had feathers, these were thought to be a small niche group, separate from other species. Over the past decade, fossil findings from China have produced five different species of feather dinosaurs all from the theropod “raptor” group, the ancestors of modern day birds.

dinosaurs and birdsNow new discoveries from an international team in Siberia have unearthed a 4.5 foot (1.5 meter) two-legged ornithischian beaked dinosaur with feathers, the first to belong from a separate and distinct ancestrally linage than theropod dinosaurs.

This finding leads contemporary paleontologist to believe that the older common ancestor to all dinosaur species may too have possessed feathers. Feathers may not have been a characteristic of an evolutionary isolated species but rather a trait maintained by a larger majority of dinosaurs, similar to mammals possessing a wide variety of hair.

The fossil findings, which included six skulls and a number of bones, broaden the number of dinosaur families with feathers. This more detailed examination indicates that plumes of downy, ribboned, and thin feathers evolved from the scales that covered earlier reptiles. The Siberian ornithischian, named Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, also possessed scales, most notably arched rows on its long tail.

This finding adds an entirely new perception to the evolution of both feathered dinosaurs and modern avian species. The scales on Kulinadromeus resemble the scaly skin on some modern birds, suggesting that a deeper genetic root links ancient dinosaurs to their modern ancestors. However this does not exclude the possibility that feathers are convergent evolutionary traits, which are similar features that appear in species of different lineages, such as bats, insects, and birds having flight.

 

Sources:
An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures. Zheng XT1, You HL, Xu X, Dong ZM: Nature. 2009 Mar 19.