New Horizons Just Sent Its Highest-Res Images of Pluto Yet
Over the last few months, New Horizons has continued to send back images of Pluto from its closest July flyby of the dwarf planet. They’re amazing. But today’s releases put them all to shame. These images—the first in a series of high-res shots NASA will release in the coming weeks—are the sharpest humans will ever see of Pluto’s surface. That is, until explorers send another probe out toward the Kuiper belt.
If you want to see the images in the highest resolution possible, click on the image to the left and zoom in. NASA also produced a video, below, scanning across the entire 50 mile-wide strip—ranging from the horizon, across the al-Idrisi mountains, and into Sputnik Planum.
The black and white images (from LORRI) might look plain at first glance, but really take the time to dive into that image: If you look carefully, you can see some incredible details. In the impact-ridden area north of the mountain range, some craters seem to have multiple layers—relics of different geological ages, perhaps, hidden in Pluto’s icy crust. And Sputnik Planum’s flats, on closer inspection, aren’t so pristine. The plain is pockmarked with ridges of different sizes, like ripples left in sand as the tide goes out. Go on a tour for yourself, and get hyped for more of these up-close encounters.
The first crewed mission to Pluto is going to be a master class in homesickness. After traveling 4.7 billion miles to the icy rock, those future pioneers—breathing bottled air, bundled in awkward space clothes, buoyant in low gravity—will have little to remind them of home. But upon landing, they might just ease their pangs of longing by gazing up into the dwarf planet’s sky—which, scientists now know, is blue just like Earth’s.
NASA broke the news today by sharing the above photo of Pluto’s cerulean halo, taken in July by the New Horizons spacecraft.
Like Earth’s heavenly hue, Pluto’s blue sky is caused by tiny, sunlight-scattering particles in the atmosphere. Those particles probably begin as molecular nitrogen (which Pluto is constantly emitting) and other trace gases. The sun’s ultraviolet rays break down and ionize these molecules, which then combine into larger (though still microscopic) particles.
The particles aren’t blue themselves; they’re reddish to grey, and are heavy enough that they eventually fall back down to the dwarf planet’s surface.
But wait! There’s more! See those conveniently-colored blue blobs on the above close-up? Those are frozen water, confirmed by combining spectral infrared and visible light data taken by two of New Horizons’ imagers. What’s compelling to scientists (besides the fact that water exists) is why it appears where it does: on rocky outcrops near craters, and between mountains.
Another mystery is the water’s hue, which appears bright red in color imagery. The New Horizons team thinks this indicates some sort of relationship between the surface ice and those atmospheric particles responsible for Pluto’s blue sky.
Maybe I’m biased, but those pretty skies and chunks of water make Pluto seem like a pretty good setting for Hollywood’s next lost-in-space blockbuster. Damon, you up for getting stranded on yet another world?
This high-res image shows Charon at 1.8 mile resolution. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons LORRI imager captured Charon’s details, then its Ralph/MVIC imager filled in the color. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Pluto and Charon are at proper relative sizes in this image. At their proper distances in space, Charon would appear much smaller. NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Admit it: You were a little envious of New Horizons when it flew through the Pluto system in July. (Probably less so regarding the nine preceding years of isolated hurtling.) Lucky for you, NASA keeps dropping new imagery. This flyby experience gets more vicarious by the week.
On Thursday the agency released the best images so far of Pluto’s moon Charon. Its surface features indicate some lively geologic activity. One half of the planet (let’s refrain from imposing our Terran notions of “north” and “south” on this alien world) is craggy and mountainous, with evidence of landslides.
The landscape below the canyon is a lot smoother than above. Fewer craters indicates that Vulcan Planum, as the New Horizons team is calling it, is probably a lot younger. Nobody expected active geology on Pluto or its satellites, so scientists are still working out what causes the subsurface roiling. But in Charon’s case, they suspect cryovulcanism. That’s right: ice volcanoes. A layer of heavy rock presses downward onto a thick layer of frozen water. Sandwiched against rock below, that ice ruptures through Charon’s surface where the stuff flows like lava.
A sprawling system of cliffs, gulches, and fractures separates Charon’s hemispheres–scientists estimate that’s more than 1,000 miles of geologic tumult. (What’s up with other worlds and marquee features, by the way? Mars has its volcano, Jupiter its spot, Pluto its heart…) Combined, the canyon is four times longer than the Grand Canyon on Earth, and in places is twice as deep. It would make for great rafting, if the water there didn’t flow like lava.
The second picture has a closer look at Charon’s varied landscape, including the landslide evidence. The third is a composite showing Pluto and Charon together. See Charon’s reddish polar area? Pluto’s equatorial region has a similar color; scientists believe the two are somehow related.
NASA still has plenty of New Horizons data to share. Except for the not freezing to death or suffocating, it’s almost like being there.
Right now, New Horizons is speeding toward its next target, Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. But while it focuses on avoiding collisions with scattered, icy bodies throughout the belt, it’s also sending back all the data it collected while flying by Pluto back in July.
The space probe’s Earth-bound guides received the first of that data—the beginning of a year-long intensive downlink—last week. Enjoy some of these great images, and get ready: You can expect much more where that came from.
New Horizons has a new destination! The spacecraft, as you might remember, whizzed by the former planet known as Pluto earlier this summer. NASA has now picked its next stop: a small, cold Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69 that is nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto.
Although the trip to Pluto has been carefully planned, the trip beyond has been…less so. Kuiper Belt objects at the edge of the solar system are enticing destinations because they’re made up of primitive material largely unchanged since the solar system’s birth 4.6 billion years ago. NASA had been looking for a KBO that New Horizons could visit since 2011. But none of the ground-based telescopes turned up anything that the spacecraft could reach with its remaining fuel.
With time running out, NASA finagled observation time on the Hubble Space Telescope in the summer of 2014. Then, finally, Hubble found five potential targets—eventually narrowed down to two.
2014 MU69 was known as potential target 1, or PT1, because it is easier to reach. But the other option, PT3, looked brighter in the sky, meaning it could be bigger and more interesting. “We have to weigh the risk of something barely reachable and another one that is smaller but easily reachable,” said Hal Weaver, a New Horizons project scientist, back in July. With a multimillion dollar spacecraft on the line, NASA evidently went with the safer bet.
NASA will point New Horizons toward 2014 MU69 with four maneuvers this fall. It’ll reach the target by January 2019. Because of the bureaucratic rules that govern NASA’s budget, though, the official proposal for the 2014 MU69 mission isn’t due until 2016. Of course, it’d be too late to maneuver New Horizons by then.
For now, NASA is also teasing the possibility of an extended mission—even beyond 2014 MU69. Of course, one New Horizons scientist also couldn’t resist a reference to The Martian.
To make this work, we had to channel Mark Watney and “science the $^!§ out of it.” https://t.co/L8KuSK1rQU
— Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker) August 28, 2015
Feast your eyes on this one. Photos from New Horizons’ mission to Pluto have dwindled to a trickle, but the team has planted a flag in the sand with this most recent image, taken by the spacecraft after its closest approach to the dwarf planet. “You can only get this image by going to Pluto and looking back,” says principal investigator Alan Stern. Casting a dramatic over-the-shoulder glance toward the sun after it had passed Pluto, this is New Horizons’ way of saying “I was here.”
While Pluto’s backlit silhouette is beautiful, this is more than a simple glamour shot. See that band of light surrounding the rock? That’s Pluto’s atmosphere, and looking closely at its illumination tells New Horizons’ atmospheric team some surprising things about its size and its makeup. “This is the image that almost brought tears to the eyes of the atmospheric scientists on the team,” says co-investigator Michael Summers.
For 25 years, scientists have known that Pluto has an atmosphere. But in this image, the New Horizons team could pull out discrete layers of haze—small particles in the atmosphere, scattering sunlight. First off, the entire haze layer is at least 100 miles high, five times higher than the team predicted. And that layer seems to be broken into layers, one up about 30 miles and the other about 50 miles up.
Those two layers may provide clues about the red color on Pluto’s surface. Atmospheric scientists think that methane in Pluto’s atmosphere gets bombarded by UV light, which helps to form other compounds like ethylene and acetylene that finally end up as red-hued hydrocarbons called tholins. Those heavier particles in the low atmosphere eventually fall to the surface, giving Pluto its distinctive hue. Studying the layers in Pluto’s atmosphere should help explain that chain of reactions better—and the team has a year’s worth of data on the way to help.
Well hel-lo, Charon. NASA just released the latest photo of Pluto’s largest moon in stunning new detail, and this one’s got a closeup of an unusual beauty mark. To us, it strongly resembles an outie bellybutton. But if you’re not quite seeing it, you could also say it looks like “a large mountain sitting in a moat,” as New Horizons scientist Jeff Moore describes it. And his team has no idea what it is.
The closeup, shown above next to an earlier capture of Charon in its entirety, covers about 240 miles from top to bottom, and boasts some handsome craters as well. New Horizons took this image on Tuesday morning about an hour and a half before its historic closest approach to Pluto—about 49,000 miles away from Charon—and compressed it so the probe could send it more quickly back to Earth. So get ready for even better shots of Charon; the spacecraft is in the process of sending the real-deal, high-resolution images.
Okay, here’s the one you’ve been waiting for: Here is the first true close-up picture of Pluto’s surface, focused on the edge of the southeastern hemisphere. It shows that Pluto has mountains, and that those mountains are made of water ice. And most exciting of all—those mountains might be geologically active.
“The most striking geology is that we haven’t found a single impact crater,” says John Spencer, one of New Horizons’ lead scientists. “That means this is a very young surface.” “Young” being less than 100 million years old.
So what could be driving that geologic activity? There’s no planetary body large enough to be driving tidal energy, so Spencer speculates that the energy could be driven by latent radioactive energy, or a large interior ocean could release energy as it freezes. Or, the planet could be storing energy from its formation through some other, unknown process.
And yeah, about that water. See those mountains? Those are about 11,000 feet tall. Frozen nitrogen and methane would crumble under their own weight at those elevations. And because of Pluto’s mass and size, they can’t be bedrock. The only way to balance that equation is ice.
Stay tuned for more science, more pictures, and more excitement from the Pluto system.
— NASA (@NASA) July 15, 2015
Once you have pictures of a never-before-seen-up-close almost-planet, you have to start naming what you see. And according to an image of from the New Horizons press room that our correspondent Nick Stockton tweeted earlier today, the Plutonians have started naming their surroundings…informally.
The names are all related to various mythologies of the underworld, appropriately enough. They also suggest that some of these researchers are pretty darn nerdy—though some of the names seem to have come from votes people submitted online during New Horizons’ flight.
Like, for example, “Cthulu,” the name of an elder god from the fiction of HP Lovecraft. Or what about “Balrog,” the name of the monster that seemingly killed Gandalf the Grey in the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Meng-p’o is the Buddhist goddess of forgetfulness and amnesia—she lives in the underworld. Hun-Came and Vucub-Came are Mayan death gods.
We thought at first that Krun was a reference to a Non-Player Character from the hellfire peninsula in World of Worldcraft, but he’s actually one of five lords of the underworld for the Mandaeans, an ancient religion from the Iraq-Iran region. (His nickname is “Mountain-of-Flesh.”) Ala is an underworld and harvest goddess of the Ibo people of eastern Nigeria.
Pluto might not technically be a planet, but it has some great place-names.
— Nick Stockton (@StocktonSays) July 14, 2015
Here is New Horizons’ newest image of Pluto, sent from the planet yesterday and released early this morning. Each pixel represents 4 kilometers, and the image is 1000 times the resolution of anything from Hubble.
The image is oriented with Pluto’s north at the top. The dark regions (not shadowed) are the planet’s equator, which is about 2/3rds the diameter of Earth’s moon. The photo shows a lot of detail, but New Horizons’ scientists are cagey about what it all means. There are features indicating impacts, freeze/thaw surface activity and “maybe even tectonic activity indicating internal activity in the past, possibly the present,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator.
And that’s only a sliver of the information to come. Stereographics will give measurable imagery of topographic relief. Compositional spectrography and plasma readings will show atmospheric activity. Thermal maps are coming. Full color photos.
And all of the above—and so much more—for the moons Charon, Hydra, Styx, Nix, and Kerberos. “By tomorrow, we’ll have images at 10 times the resolution of this image,” says Stern. We’ll be standing by, Alan.
In the image NASA released of Charon yesterday, astronomers pointed out a collection of vaguely-defined features on the surface of Pluto’s biggest moon. Now, with this latest capture, the New Horizons team has confirmed that the big dent in the icy rock’s surface is in fact an impact crater, surrounded by a couple of deep canyons—one larger than Earth’s Grand Canyon.
Get ready for even more detailed images of Charon and its orbital buddy, Pluto, tomorrow morning when New Horizons makes its closest approach to the system. Geologists will be especially interested to take a closer look at the dark spot on the moon’s northern pole, and the rays of material you can see spraying out from the edges of the crater.
Tomorrow, July 14 at 7:49:58 AM Eastern time, New Horizons will pass closest to Pluto. And it will gather its juiciest science during the hours surrounding the fly by.
Or everything could go horribly wrong.
“The most dangerous time for a collision is when you pass through the plane of Pluto’s equator and when you pass all the other satellites,” says Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist. But the danger won’t come from one of Pluto’s five (and counting) moons, it’ll be from bits of dust and rock caught in the planet’s gravity.
At 31,000 mph even a glancing blow from a mote of dust could send New Horizons into a tumble, interrupting its most scientifically productive moments. “But anything that sends it into a tumble could also destroy it,” says Chris Hersman, New Horizons’ system engineer. The most vulnerable spot is dead center, where the craft’s propellant is stored. In space, no one can hear you kabloom.
Neither will anyone on Earth. With all sensors trained on Pluto, New Horizons won’t phone home for 21 straight hours. How will radio silence affect the mood in mission control? Many scientists here admit to some amount of anxiety—and to soothing it with suspicious rituals.
But rather than the sound of wind being sucked through a roomful of teeth, 7:50 AM will probably be filled with hoots, hollers, and hands slapping together. “I think it’s going to be pretty wild,” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator. Everything may have gone wrong, but that won’t stop the New Horizons team, friends, and family from celebrating 3 billion miles and nine and a half years of collision-free space travel.
About an hour ago, Alice Bowman spoke to the Pluto Press Corps. She’s New Horizons’ Mission Operations Manager—basically the engineer in charge of making sure all the commands go up to New Horizons and come back down.
Bowman was on point when New Horizons took its 4th of July nap and freaked everyone out. The shut down was particularly harrowing because the ground team had just sent up the set of instructions that would guide the space probe’s instruments during its close encounter with Pluto. It was mission critical to get those back up.
“The best scenario to recover the spacecraft before the encounter was Tuesday, July 7th,” she says. She and her team—consummate engineers—accomplished the task with the efficiency and precision you’d expect. But, Bowman admits, they’re not above a little bit of superstition.
“We have a piece of wood that our PI (Alan Stern) gave us near the start of the mission,” she says. Yes, that wood is for knocking. The operations team also has a stuffed bear. “He’s been hibernating, but now he’s awake and has a party hat on,” Bowman says. New Horizons may be on a mission to bring home pictures of Pluto, but I won’t rest until I can capture some images of this little bear.
— Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker) July 8, 2015
New Horizons is back! After giving us a scare this weekend, briefly going to sleep after overtaxing its processors, the spacecraft has graced us with a brand-new image of our favorite dwarf planet.
This Pluto photo is actually a composite of new and old data; new detail comes from the LORRI camera, with its long-distance telescopic lens, and old color data from the Ralph camera fills in the gaps. It takes a long time to send data from both cameras, but once the team has new color information in, they’ll be delivering a new composite, according to New Horizons planetary astronomer Alex Parker.