New Pluto images released with historic flyby
July 14, 2015
Courtesy of NASA and World Science staff
NASA has released new images of Pluto with a historic flyby this morning of the agency’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006.
The Pluto image, taken shortly before the flyby, has a resolution of about 4 km per pixel, the scientists said in a media briefing July 14. That’s about a thousand times more detailed than the best images taken from near Earth.
A related image taken July 11 also shows Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. Color data being returned by the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus, according to agency scientists.
Agency scientists also reported the discovery of a system of chasms on Charon, larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth.
The closest approach was about 7,700 miles (about 12,400 km) and took place at 7:49 a.m., according to NASA scientists.
New Horizons is currently out of communication from Earth so that it can focus on Pluto, they added, but is expected will start releasing additional data this evening and in the coming days and months.
The flyby “completes the reconnaissance” of the solar system by spaceships, started with Mars 50 years ago, said Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute, principal investigator for New Horizons, at the briefing.
Many more images will be “raining to the ground beginning tomorrow,” he added.
The images show Pluto and Charon as quite different, he added. “To my eye, these images show a much younger surface on Pluto, and a much older and more battered surface on Charon,” he remarked. This could be due to more active geology or atmospheric activity, changing the surface of Pluto, he said. “It sure looks” as though it snows, for example. But further images should help clarify this.
The piano-sized New Horizons craft zipped past Pluto at an estimated 30,800 miles (49,600 km) per hour.
In related findings, updated measurements obtained by New Horizons indicate that Pluto is 2,370 km (1,473 miles) wide, 18.5 percent the width of Earth. Meanwhile Charon is measured as about half as wide as Pluto, or 1,208 km, about the size of Texas.
Pluto is a type of planet known as an “ice dwarf,” found in the Kuiper Belt region billions of miles from the sun. The Kuiper belt, a ring of icy rocks outside the orbit of Neptune, is the source of some comets and an object of astronomers’ interest in its own right, as it’s thought to contain ancient leftovers of the planet formation process.