Latest LORRI images of Pluto show increased contrast and detail
Images of Pluto taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Orbiter (LORRI) camera in mid-May show a level of contrast and complexity significantly beyond those taken only a month ago. As part of the mission’s ongoing process of transforming a point of light into a planet, the New Horizons team released a new set of images of the spacecraft’s target, taken from a distance of slightly less than 50 million miles (77 million km) from Pluto between May 8 and 12.
After being downlinked, the images underwent the same deconvolution process as did their counterparts last month. Deconvolution sharpens raw, unprocessed images, enhancing their features. The pictures are shown at four times the size of the original LORRI images.
Made up of twice as many pixels as the April photos, the new images are the highest resolution pictures ever taken of the small planet. They show surface features first seen a month ago with finer detail.
Over the one-month interval, Pluto appears to grow close to 50 percent larger as the distance between it and the spacecraft diminishes.
Image sets of the same regions showing both the April and May pictures, along with New Horizons’ distance from Pluto in each photograph, Pluto central longitude, rotation axis, and days to closest approach were published on Wednesday, May 27.
In each image, the April photograph is shown on the left and the May photograph on the right. All photos were rotated to align Pluto’s rotational axis with the vertical, up-down direction.
Contrasting bright and dark regions appear more distinct in the May images, including an area that appears to be a bright polar icecap. Changes in surface features are visible as Pluto rotates on its axis every 6.4 Earth days.
Scientists are already speculating about potential surface features, with some proposing that the darker areas, which absorb more sunlight, could be craters and dormant volcanoes intersected by complex canyons.
“These new images show us that Pluto’s differing faces are each distinct, likely hinting at what may be very complex surface geology or variations in surface composition from place to place,” noted mission principal investigator Alan Stern.
“These images also continue to support the hypothesis that Pluto has a polar cap whose extent varies with longitude; we’ll be able to make a definitive determination of the polar bright region’s iciness when we get compositional spectroscopy of that region in July,” he added.
New Horizons is speeding toward Pluto at 750,000 miles (1,207,000 km) per day as it heads toward its scheduled July 14 rendezvous with the dwarf planet. Because the spacecraft is traveling so fast, its images will dramatically improve in the following weeks as it heads toward closest approach.
Mission project scientist Hal Weaver, operating out of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland, said images sent back in late June will be four times better than these latest photos.
“The best will come at closest approach, when images taken and sent back to Earth will have more than 5,000 times the resolution of those released today,” Weaver emphasized.
The deconvolution process can, at times, add false details; meaning detailed features on Pluto’s surface will require confirmation from pictures taken over the next few weeks at closer range to the Pluto system.
Launched in January 2006 and now 2.95 billion miles (4.75 billion km; 31.75 AU) from Earth, New Horizons is healthy, and its systems are all functioning normally. At closest approach, the spacecraft will be only 7,800 miles (12,500 km) from Pluto’s surface.
Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, conveyed the growing excitement among the mission team and the many people eagerly following it.
“As New Horizons closes in on Pluto, it’s transforming from a point of light to a planetary object of intense interest. “We’re in for an exciting ride for the next seven weeks.”
Video courtesy of Space.com
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.