Spaceflight Insider

New Horizons’ images, animation show Pluto’s surface in stunning detail

Highlighted stripe of Pluto

The strip indicates the region on Pluto from which the close-up images were taken. Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

More than four months after its July 14 encounter with Pluto, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the highest resolution images of the small world’s surface featuring layered craters, icy plains, rugged badlands, cliffs, canyons, water ice crust, and icy mountains.

Taken very near the spacecraft’s closest approach, the images have a resolution of 250–280 feet (77–85 meters) per pixel, close enough to reveal features less than half the size of a city block.

The best pictures were put together to create an animation (below) simulating a close up fly around the encounter side of the planet, then zoom in on a strip 50 miles (80 km) wide starting about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the heart-shaped Sputnik Planum, traversing the al-Idrisi mountains adjacent to Sputnik Planum, then moving on to the icy plains.

The individual images were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) over approximately a minute just 15 minutes before closest approach.

In a departure from its usual procedure of pointing and shooting, LORRI took photos every three seconds from a distance of just 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers).

At the same time, the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) was taking scans of Pluto’s surface in very short exposures.

The photos have a resolution six times higher than the spacecraft’s global map of Pluto and five times better than the highest resolution images of Neptune’s moon Triton taken by Voyager 2 in 1989.

Montage of Pluto's cratered plains, badlands, and mountainous shoreline

From left to right, Pluto’s cratered plains, badlands, and mountainous shoreline. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

“These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth,” said NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator John Grunsfeld.

New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see,” Grunsfeld said.

The presence of layered craters could mean there was a change in their composition at some point. At present, scientists do not know whether the layering is global, regional, or local.

“Impact craters are nature’s drill rigs, and the new, highest-resolution pictures of the bigger craters seem to show that Pluto’s icy crust, at least in places, is distinctly layered,” said William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team.

By peering into a planet’s geological layers, scientists can look back in time and piece together its geological history, McKinnon said.

Faulting and erosion formed rugged badlands out of Pluto’s frozen crust. One of the images shows a cliff standing 1.2 miles high stretching from left to upper right, part of a huge system of canyons on Pluto’s northern hemisphere that extends hundreds of miles.

An abrupt terrain change occurs as the al-Idrisi mountains, composed of water ice and jumbled together, meets the smooth terrain of Sputnik Planum.

NH Kuiper Belt object GIF

KBO 1994 JR1 animation. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

While some of the mountains seem to be covered by a layer of dark material, others appear bright.

Science team member John Spencer described the al-Idrisi mountains as “absolutely stunning. The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations.”

Principal investigator Alan Stern of Boulder, Colorado’s Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) emphasized that it took decades to obtain such detailed images of Venus and Mars.

“These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology. Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we’re there already – down among the craters, ice fields and mountains – less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable.”

More high-resolution images, including some additional ones of terrains, are expected within the next few days.

Using LORRI, New Horizons also took the first ever close-up of a distant Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on November 2. Images of the 90-mile (150-kilometer) KBO known as 1994 JR1 were captured an hour apart from a distance of 170 million miles (280 million kilometers), then combined to create an animation (right) showing the object moving against background stars.

According to mission scientists, the images set a record for the closest ever photo of a tiny KBO.

1994 JR1 is located 3.3 billion miles (5.3 billion miles) from the Sun. Traveling at 32,000 miles per hour, New Horizons is now 104 million miles (167 million kilometers) beyond Pluto.

An extended mission was approved by NASA in late August of this year, so New Horizons will flyby and image another KBO, 2014 MU69, a billion miles beyond Pluto, sometime on December 31, 2018, or January 1, 2019.

Video Courtesy of Video


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.

Reader Comments

OK great pictures. Now what ? Has this helped humanity at all ? What has the avg. man or women gained here. It does cost money.

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