New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft ever launched, delivered breathtaking images two years ago when it flew just 7,800 miles above Pluto’s surface. The drab world most of us thought Pluto was revealed itself to be home to vast icy plains and jagged mountain ranges.
Paul Schenk and John Blackwell, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, used digital mapping and New Horizons data to craft the video seen above.
The flyover begins southwest of the icy plain known as Sputnik Planitia. Then, we skirt the western edge of the icy plain as it meets the cratered landscape of Cthulhu Macula. Here, we see Pluto’s geological processes at play. The smooth icy plain to the right versus the craters to the left. Sputnik Planitia shows us a relatively fresh surface hiding the old scars from asteroid impacts over millions of years.
The video wraps up with views of huge pits in Pioneer Terra and the edges of the encounter hemisphere at Tartarus Dorsa.
“The complexity of the Pluto system – from its geology to its satellite system to its atmosphere – has been beyond our wildest imagination,” said New Horizons’ Alan Stern on the two-year anniversary of the Pluto encounter. “Everywhere we turn are new mysteries.”
Schenk and Blackwell gave the same flyover treatment to Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.
Pluto and Charon wouldn’t look quite like they do here if you were on a spacecraft doing the same flyover. Topographic relief was exaggerated by two to three times to emphasize the topography. The surface colors were also enhanced to tease out more details.
Here’s what Pluto looks like if you snapped an ordinary picture of it.
Next up, 2014 MU69
New Horizons continues to cruise towards its next target, the Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. Earlier this month, scientists used an occultation opportunity (when an object passes in front of a star) to learn more about MU69.
Here’s Alan Stern explaining what the observations tell the New Horizons team. “These results are telling us something really interesting. The fact that we accomplished the occultation observations from every planned observing site but didn’t detect the object itself likely means that either MU69 is highly reflective and smaller than some expected, or it may be a binary or even a swarm of smaller bodies left from the time when the planets in our solar system formed.”
Today, another occultation will happen, and the Hubble Space Telescope is ready. It will check for debris around MU69. New Horizons team members will be in southern Argentina with mobile telescopes to catch a very brief glimpse of the occultation shadow. The data gathered here could help scientists nail down the size of the spacecraft’s next target.