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New Horizons images show surface features on Pluto and Charon

Images show the discovery of significant surface details on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. Credits: NASA / JHUAPL / SRI

These two images, taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on June 18, 2015, show the discovery of significant surface details on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. The image on the left is the original image, displayed at four times the native LORRI image size; the image on the right is after applying a deconvolution technique that sharpens an image. Image Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SRI

As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft closes in on the Pluto system, its instruments have begun returning images that show surprisingly varied surfaces on both Pluto and one of its moons – Charon. The latest series of images released by the mission team were taken with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI ) between May 29 and June 19.

After applying a technique that sharpens an image called deconvolution, details become visible on Charon, including a distinct dark pole, as shown in the above feature image. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce ‘false’ details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks.

All of the photographs show terrains varying in color and brightness on both of the small worlds. Over the time span of three weeks, these pictures double the appearance of both Pluto and Charon.

New Horizons LORRI images of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

These images, taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show numerous large-scale features on Pluto’s surface. (Click to enlarge) Image Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SRI

The above images of Pluto are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on the dwarf planet. Pluto is known to be almost perfectly spherical from previous data; however, when various large, dark and bright regions appear near limbs, they give Pluto a distinct but false, non-spherical appearance.

British image processor Ian Regan combined four pictures taken by both the LORRI instrument as well as color photos taken by the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC ) to create a colorized image of Pluto and Charon.

Color GIF movie of Pluto and Charon in a complex orbital dance. Image Credit: NASA

The first color movie from NASA’s New Horizons mission show Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, and the complex orbital dance of the two bodies, known as a double planet. GIF Image Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, the mission team released its first color movies of the duo orbiting each other. These were made from low-resolution images taken between May 29 and June 3.

Close to true color, the movies were made with images taken in blue, red, and near-infrared by MVIC on nine separate occasions.

The two movies show the binary system from different perspectives. One is Pluto-centric, showing Pluto in the center with Charon orbiting around it. The other is barycentric, showing the two worlds orbiting their center of gravity, or barycenter, which is marked with an “X”.

In spite of the low resolution, it is obvious from the movies that Pluto and Charon have different coloring. Pluto shows a beige-orange color while Charon is gray.

Pluto has lumpy features, including two large craters that eerily look like two eyes on a face, leading some to refer to the image as the “Person in Pluto”.

The most varied terrain of both worlds appears on Pluto’s “close approach” hemisphere, which New Horizons will fly directly over on July 14.

Detecting surface features on Charon for the first time ever, mission scientists were surprised to see a dark region at one of the large moon’s poles, which some have characterized as an “anti-polar cap”.

The images were released on June 22, the 37th anniversary of Charon’s discovery by U.S. Naval Observatory astronomer James Christy and his colleague Robert Harrington in 1978.

Barycentric GIF movie of Pluto & Charon. Credit: NASA

The second movie is barycentric – the shared center of gravity between the two bodies as they do a planetary jig. Because Pluto is much more massive than Charon, the barycenter (marked by a small “X” in the movie) is much closer to Pluto than to Charon. GIF Image Credit: NASA

New Horizons started Approach Phase 3 on June 23. This phase will last until July 13, one day before the flyby.

“This system is just amazing,” emphasized principal investigator Alan Stern. “The science team is just ecstatic with what we see on Pluto’s close approach hemisphere: Every terrain type we see on the planet – including both the brightest and darkest surface areas – are represented there; it’s a wonderland!”

According to the science team, co-investigator Jeff Moore of the NASA Ames Research Center, the bright and dark regions indicate both worlds have diverse landscapes.

“For example, the bright fringe we see on Pluto may represent frost deposited from an evaporating polar cap, which is now in summer sun.”

Both worlds could host mountains, valleys, frozen methane lakes, and possibly even subsurface oceans.

New Horizons is now 2.9 billion miles (4.7 billion kilometers) from Earth and only about 14 million miles (23 million kilometers) from Pluto.

In less than three weeks, it will fly within 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto and 17,900 miles (27,359 kilometers) of Charon. The two worlds are separated by about 12,000 miles (19,300 kilometers).

From that point, the spacecraft will be capable of imaging features as small as 200 feet across.

Video courtesy of NASA

In a weekly update on June 23, project scientist Hal Weaver reported on the search for potential hazards to the spacecraft, noting LORRI took 384 images of Pluto and the region around it in the search for possible threats.

“This is by far the deepest we’ve looked for new satellites and potential dust in the system that could potentially pose a hazard to the spacecraft,” he said. “We can go well below the brightness of Styx (Pluto’s smallest moon), and we’re still not seeing anything.”

The science team has come up with 249 possible contingencies in the event New Horizons encounters a threat.

The July 14 flyby of Pluto by New Horizons centers on reaching a very precise target at a specific time to achieve the science goals set by the mission team. To do that, the spacecraft will have to fly through a 60 by 90 mile target.

Video courtesy of NASA

It will spend that entire day taking data and will not communicate back to Earth until late in the evening.

Traveling at the universal speed of light, radio signals take four hours and 25 minutes each way, meaning any real-time communication to and from the spacecraft takes slightly more than nine hours.

Scientists are not the only people eagerly awaiting the encounter. Folk musician Craig Werth wrote and released a new song, “Oh, Pluto”, which he describes as “Inspired by the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the quest for knowledge and understanding in the human spirit.”

The music video, created by Werth and folk singer Christine Lavin, is available for viewing here and on YouTube.

Video courtesy of Craig Werth




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

John Levasseur

Why are the pictures always a week behind? I know it is a long ways but? Please tell me your not taking all that time to erase little green men.

John H. Levasseur

I have had similar thoughts.

So where are all the close up photos ? So far I have only been able to find 3. What is going on ?

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