You would think images of Pluto would start to get boring. But every new image is just as stunning as the previous one. Last month, the New Horizons team released a breathtaking backlit panorama. Everyone’s eyes were immediately drawn to the frozen mountains and low-lying fog (haze).
The New Horizons science team finished processing work and released the entire image.
This image was captured as New Horizons soared past Pluto 15 minutes after its closest approach. At a distance of 11,000 miles, the resolution works out to 700 meters per pixel.
We get another look at the icy plains of Sputnik Planum on the lower right. Just above that (middle right) we see Pluto’s forzen rugged mountains rising up to 11,000 feet high.
“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern back in September.
At first glance, most of the backlit portion of Pluto doesn’t look like much. But look towards the left edge, and you can see silhouetted plateaus.
And we get another view of Pluto’s thin atmosphere. More than a dozen thin layers can be seen extending from right above the ground:
To more than 60 miles above the dwarf planet’s surface:
Those low-lying hazes tease local weather that changes daily on Pluto.
Onward to the Kuiper Belt
On Wednesday, New Horizons fired its hydrazine-fueled thrusters for about 30 minutes. It was the third of four targeting maneuvers to get the spacecraft headed in the general direction of its next destination – Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69.
According to the New Horizons team, Wednesday’s maneuver was the largest propulsive maneuver ever for the spacecraft. The fourth planned targeting maneuver is scheduled for November 4th. But next week’s maneuver won’t be the last. MU69 was just discovered in the summer of 2014 and scientists are still learning more about its orbit and location.
The New Horizons team still needs to get formal approval from NASA for their mission extension. A proposal will be submitted early next year. NASA will take a look at it and decide whether or not to approve it.
Approval is a no-brainer in my book. The Pluto mission is a resounding success. Any person with even a small interest in astronomy can’t wait to see what the next images of Pluto show. If a gray rock this far out in our solar system is this captivating, imagine the excitement around a Kuiper Belt Object encounter.