"Long before it's in the papers"
July 15, 2015


New Pluto images released with historic flyby

July 14, 2015
Courtesy of NASA
and World Science staff

NASA scientists describe this as the last image taken before the July 14 flyby by the New Horizons spacecraft, released by NASA July 14. The image comes from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager instrument aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, taken on July 13 when the craft was 476,000 miles (768,000 kilometers) away from Pluto. The image, which was combined with lower-resolution color information gathered earlier that day, features a large, bright area nicknamed the “heart,” about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) wide. This borders darker equatorial terrains, and the mottled terrain to its east (right) are complex. However, even at this resolution, much of the heart looks remarkably featureless—possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes, scientists say. A larger version of the image is here. (Credits: NASA/APL/SwRI)

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. 

Charon, Pluto's largest moon, in a NASA image released July 13.

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.

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NASA has released new images of Pluto with the historic flyby this morning of the agency’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006. A related image taken July 11 shows Pluto and its moon, Charon. Color data being returned by the spacecraft now will update these images, bringing color contrast into sharper focus, according to agency scientists. Updated measurements obtained by New Horizons indicate that Pluto is 2370 km wide, 18.5% the width of Earth, while Charon is 1208 km wide, about the size of Texas. Agency scientists also reported the discovery of a system of chasms on Charon, larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth.