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Fascinating images of Pluto and its moons captured by NASA
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(Pocket-lint) – In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons interplanetary space probe. The mission of this probe was initially to perform an overflight survey of Pluto and in 2015 it succeeded in doing so.
Some of the first images from the probe depicted a blurry view of Pluto. With round spots in space and nothing particularly exciting. But as the probe advanced through space, the returned images became clearer and clearer. Some of the images since then have been remarkable and have helped the space agency learn more about the so-called dwarf planet.
We’ve put together some of the interesting images of Pluto that NASA has collected so far.
What is New Horizons?
New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe built by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched it in 2006 as part of the New Frontiers program, with the purpose of studying Pluto, its moons, and the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons was intended to pass within 7,800 miles (12,500 km) of Pluto, and its closest approach happened 14 July 2015. It also came as close as 17,900 miles (28,800 km) to Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five known moons. The probe took roughly nine years to reach Pluto and is now heading in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.
Radio signals took about four and a half hours to travel between the probe and Earth, and NASA has been posting the latest news and photos from the probe’s flyby to its mission website.
What has NASA learned from the flyby thus far?
NASA has said that “icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon” are among the several discoveries made by the New Horizons team – just one day after the probe’s first-ever Pluto flyby.
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Here’s a list of some of the most interesting tidbits, according to NASA:
- New Horizons snapped an image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto, capturing a mountain range with peaks as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.
- Scientists believe the mountains on Pluto likely formed 100 million years ago, and that the region, which covers about one per cent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active.
- Pluto has a vast, frozen, craterless plain that also appears to be no more than 100 million years old and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. It is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature.
- Interestingly, Pluto isn’t heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body, so NASA figures some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.
- Pluto has an extended atmosphere efficiently made of nitrogen that extends tens of thousands of miles beyond the dwarf planet. Also, as the solar wind interacts with Pluto, it appears that the atmosphere is being “blown back” and forming a long tail of cold, dense ionized gas up to 68,000 miles (109,000 km) long.
- Spectroscopic data from New Horizons’ Ralph instruments reveal an abundance of methane ice on Pluto, but with “striking differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto”.
- New Horizons snapped an image of Charon, capturing its varied terrain, apparent lack of craters, a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 km) deep, and a swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 km, the latter of which suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust due to internal geological processes.
- New Horizons also observed the smaller members of the Pluto system, which includes four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.
- New Horizons snapped an image of Hydra, revealing its irregular shape and size and surface (which is probably coasted with water ice). Hydra is estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles (43 by 33 km).
The distant marble
This is an enhanced color image of Pluto.
It allows NASA scientists to detect differences in the composition and texture of Pluto’s surface.
NASA essentially combined close-up images with color data from the Ralph instrument on the New Horizon spacecraft to paint the dwarf planet. The image was taken 280,000 miles (450,000 km) away.
Pluto’s giant ice volcanoes
Since the New Horizon spacecraft passed close to Pluto in 2015, scientists have been studying data the probe sent back.
On 29 March 2022, those scientists revealed that they had discovered interesting things about the surface of Pluto. Namely that it’s changed by Cryovolcanic flows (ice volcanoes) and is far more geologically active than it was thought a planet this cold could be.
The reverse side of Pluto
NASA titled this image: “Pluto Sends a Breathtaking Farewell to New Horizons.”
It shows the dwarf planet backlit by the sun as the space probe continues its journey through space.
Pluto’s atmosphere is a bright silhouette of the planet and an intriguing view from this side. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft took this image about 1.25 million miles (2 million km) from Pluto.
Long distance pictures
New Horizons was about 3.7 million miles from Pluto and Charon on July 8, 2015, when this image was captured.
It might not be as impressive as the other images, but it certainly shows how far we’ve come to capture what we’re seeing more recently.
Pluto’s smallest moon
Pluto’s smallest moon (or ‘satellite’) is Nix, and the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager captured this image of what scientists believe is one end of Nix’s elongated body about 25 miles away. of diameter.
This is another of the blurry images the space probe first captured.
As the space probe got closer, we began to see brighter images of Pluto and its surrounding moons.
NASA said this image is of two of Pluto’s smaller moons (or “satellites”) coming into focus.
Naturally, being so far from the sun, Pluto gets a bit chilly. In fact, surface temperatures are thought to be around -229°C on average.
This is an annotated view of part of the frozen plain of Pluto (which lies north of the icy mountains of Pluto, center-left of the heart). It shows some of the points of interest on the surface that NASA has studied.
The close-up image was taken about an hour and a half before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 47,800 miles (77,000 km) from the planet’s surface.
It wasn’t just Pluto that the space probe was tasked with capturing.
Here, Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, was captured by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 13, 2015 from a distance of 289,000 miles (466,000 km).
This image and others show that Charon has an interesting surface covered in mountains, canyons, landslides, surface color variations and more. This all came as a surprise to New Horizons scientists.
Hydra – another moon of Pluto – was around 400,000 miles from New Horizons when the image was captured.
The bright and mysterious heart of Pluto
NASA described this image as “Pluto’s luminous and mysterious heart” rotating into view. It was taken by New Horizons on July 12, 2015 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million km).
Pluto’s image was captured by New Horizons on July 13, 2015, a day before its closest approach. The probe was 476,000 miles above Pluto’s surface.
Pluto and Charon
NASA exaggerated the colors in this image of Pluto and Charon, taken on July 13, 2015, to show their differences. The two bodies are also not so close to each other.
A chain of icy mountains
A range of icy mountains on the lower left edge of Pluto’s core.
This is an enhanced color view of Pluto which shows the southeastern part of Pluto’s surface, in particular the great ice plains.
The dark red color is said to come from tholins – a type of complex molecule found on Pluto.
The surface can be seen to be heavily pitted and it’s said that this is caused by surface collapse, but it’s not known why that’s happened.
The Frozen Canyons
Another view of Pluto, this time of the North Pole, shows just how varied the surface is. Scientists have found it to be geologically diverse and full of surprises.
Written by Maggie Tillman and Adrian Willings.