Spaceflight Insider

New Horizons releases close-ups in color, zooms in on pits

Pluto Close-up – in Color

Pluto close-up in color. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Close-up, high-resolution images of a 50-mile (80-km) region on Pluto’s encounter side first released last week in black and white have been re-released by NASA’s New Horizons team as an enhanced color mosaic.

The strip (above) chosen for the close-up features a variety of terrains, including Sputnik Planum, an icy plain that is part of the larger, heart-shaped region known as Tombaugh Regio, badlands northwest of the plain, and the al-Idrisi mountains, which border the plain.

Zooming in on Pluto’s Pattern of Pits

On July 14, 2015, the telescopic camera on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took the highest resolution images ever obtained of the intricate pattern of “pits” across a section of Pluto’s prominent heart-shaped region, informally named Tombaugh Regio. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

The image is a composite made up of black and white photos taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) 15 minutes before closest approach and color photos in red, blue, and the near infrared taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) 25 minutes before the LORRI images were captured.

Taken from a distance of just 10,000 miles (17,000 km), the best pictures have resolutions of about 250–280 feet (77–85 meters) per pixel, meaning they are capable of illustrating features smaller than half the size of a city block.

To create the color composite, lower resolution color data of about 2,066 feet (630 meters) per pixel was added to last week’s mosaic.

The addition of color further enhances Pluto’s stunning diversity of terrains, possibly yielding more insight into the small world’s complex geological processes.

Also released on Friday, December 11, are the highest resolution close-ups of the complex region of pits on the lower part of Tombaugh Regio.

The image on the right was taken by LORRI just 13 minutes before closest approach from a distance of 9,550 miles (15,400 kilometers).

The region is highlighted in a small box outlined at the bottom of a photo showing the encounter side of Pluto rotating into view. To the right of the photo showing the global view, the region within the box is magnified to 50-by-50 miles (80-by-80 kilometers) across, revealing a small round feature at the bottom right and a larger round feature at the bottom left, both of which might be the remains of craters.

Solar System dust disk

Image Credit: Han et al., 2011

At the upper left of the magnified image, the border between the smooth, icy plain and the pitted region is visible, as is a group of hills between the two vastly different terrains.

Because the pits, which appear to be hundreds of yards across and tens of yards deep, are located in a region with few craters, scientists believe they formed fairly recently, possibly through a combined process of ice fracturing and evaporation.

From the pits’ alignment, researchers can learn vital information about the ice flow on Pluto’s surface and the interaction processes in which nitrogen and other volatiles are transported between the planet’s atmosphere and surface.

In conjunction with the image releases, James Szalay, a graduate student from University of Colorado at Berkeley, who has spent more than five years working on New Horizons’ Student Dust Counter (SDC) instrument, published a blog post discussing its operation as well as the science it has pioneered.

Data from SDC indicates the Solar System has a dust disk (shown in the bottom left image) formed by grains generated at the Kuiper Belt that extends from the Sun to possibly beyond the Kuiper Belt.

Szalay’s blog post is available for reading here.


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.

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