New Horizons – Journey to Pluto

After 9 years, only 5 days remain until New Horizons performs its flyby of Pluto!

Time to brush up on our (my) knowledge of this ex-planet.

“Did you know that until very recently, the best images we had of Pluto were just a few pixels in size? That’s right: those pictures you have in your head of what Pluto looks like are mere artists’ impressions.”


During New Horizons’ close encounter we will see imagery revealing details as small as 50 metres across. For a sneak peak at what’s in store, check out this photo New Horizons took as it passed Jupiter.

Jupiter and Io taken by New Horizons in 2007 - image sourced from
Jupiter and Io taken by New Horizons in 2007 – image sourced from

New Horizons will pass as close as 12,500 km from Pluto, taking high resolution imagery as it floats by. It will take as long as 16 months to return 1 day worth of photos to Earth due to the probes’ low bandwidth!

I’m excited to see what insight we can get into the geology of Pluto with these images. Given how little we know about it, the little data we get from the imagery and New Horizons’ other equipment will surely yield some incredible discoveries!

Unfortunately, after Pluto, New Horizons is destined for a lonely journey through the Kuiper Belt, an icy ring of debris beyond Neptune. While there are millions of objects in this belt, they are few and far between, leaving New Horizons very unlikely to come into contact with one.

From there it will be on to the Oort cloud, and finally,  interstellar space.

For a more detailed summary of Pluto, check out this article by ABC News.

Until next time.

Rosetta and 67P

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, named after its founders by the same names, is rapidly approaching its closest point in orbit to the Sun. At almost 38 km/s to be precise.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image from

Last November, the Rosetta spacecraft’s lander, Philae, became the man-made object to perform a soft landing on a comet.

And what a landing it was! Philae was unsuccessful at anchoring itself to the surface of the comet with its landing harpoons and bounced twice before coming to a halt in a dark zone. This was a problem as the lander couldn’t charge its batteries as well as planned using solar panels, and went into hibernation 3 days after touchdown.

Although Philae made contact at a very low speed, the low gravity on the comet (around one ten-thousandth that of Earth), meant that a small bounce was disastrous.

One proposed theory for the greater than expected ‘bounce factor’ is that the surface of 67P was elastic, with a hard crust under a metre thick overlying an elastic material (S. Ernst pers. comms.). This made me think of the recent announcement that the mysterious ‘craters’ on the surface are created when porous rocky material which has lost its water-ice due to outgassing. Eventually this porous rock can no longer hold its own weight, even in the low gravity of the comet (suggesting high porosity indeed… and a very high current or previous water content for the comet overall!), and it collapses, creating a sinkhole-like feature.

Perhaps the proposed ‘spongy material’ causing Philae to bounce is the same porous rock that is causing these sinkholes?

If so, is the whole surface of the comet poised on the brink of collapse with high porosity? Or did Philae get unlucky and land on a soon to be sinkhole?

These are the questions that excite me about space science. Part of my PhD will involve developing new and novel ways to test various models for the structure of asteroids and comets. Currently I’m looking at seismics and ground penetrating radar, but endless possibilities abound!

Until next time.

Edit: This article suggesting that 67P could be home to microbial life refers to an organic rich crust which is being constantly replenished. The presence of this crust and the replenishment of water (by outgassing from the deeper ice?) would support the above hypothesis!

Second edit: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe has stated that the original scientific research the above article was based on doesn’t actually make any claim to the existence of life on the comet. It just goes to show that one should always read the original science before commenting, as science journalism does get it wrong from time to time!

Getting started

Hi everyone!

My name is Michael Dello-Iacovo and I’m a geophysicist/soon to be asteroid mining PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales. I’m about to embark on an exciting journey and I want you to be a part of it!

Over the next 8 years I’m going to have some amazing times, and some trying times. Hopefully I’ll learn something and add to the incredible database of knowledge called science.

My research is focussing on developing exploration methods for mapping the interior structure and resources of asteroids and comets for extraction in the future. My primary focus will be on developing, simulating and testing seismic methods.

This website is for me to share my research while it’s in its early stages for feedback and hopefully your enjoyment. I’ll also be posting my travels to various conferences and field locations, and also talking about any new space science discovery I find exciting.

If you’re interested in collaborating or have any suggestions (you don’t need to be a scientist to have a great idea I mightn’t have thought of!) please do get into contact.

I’ll also be linking this blog to a Youtube channel at a later date, so stay tuned!

Until next time.