New Horizons Is Close Enough To See Pluto’s Surface Features. What Does It See?
New Horizons Pluto Charon

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is still more than 60 million miles away from Pluto. But, the latest batch of images is revealing bright and dark regions on the surface of Pluto. New Horizons used its Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera to capture these images.

As scientists poured over the images and data, they also noted a bright area at one of Pluto’s poles. Scientists think it may be a polar cap.

Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, can also be seen in the images. Charon orbits Pluto every 6.4 days. Check out the GIF below of Charon orbiting Pluto.

charon orbiting Pluto

“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.”

Pluto is one of our solar system’s biggest mysteries. The dwarf planet was discovered in 1930, but scientists still don’t know much about it. Even the Hubble Space Telescope can’t get a good look at it. The image below, taken by Hubble, is the best image of Pluto. That all changes in July, when New Horizons conducts its close flyby.

Pluto from Hubble

“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”

The incredible images will only get more so. By May 5th, New Horizons’ camera will provide better resolution than the Hubble. On July 15th, New Horizons will fly just 7,800 miles above Pluto’s surface in mid-July.

The New Horizons mission doesn’t stop with Pluto. The spacecraft will continue deeper into the Kuiper Belt after its Pluto flyby. Officials hope to study at least one other Kuiper Belt object. Maneuvering is limited, so the mission team will be looking for a Kuiper Belt Object near New Horizons’ flight path.

It’s amazing to see how far New Horizons has come. From its launch in 2006:

To the images we see today.

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