NASA said that images from the New Horizons spacecraft reveal bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto.
The dwarf planet has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap, according to the space agency.
Scientists used the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera installed on New Horizons spacecraft to take these photos of the dwarf planet. The images were captured in early to mid-April from within 70 million miles of the planet (113 million kilometers), NASA said.
“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” stated John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
“As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons,” Grunsfeld added.
The images also captured Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, which is rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit. “The exposure times used to create this image set – a tenth of a second – were too short for the camera to detect Pluto’s four much smaller and fainter moons,” NASA said in a statement.
Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, orbits the sun more than 3 billion miles from Earth. Scientists have struggled to discern any details about its surface. These latest New Horizons images allow the mission science team to detect clear differences in brightness across Pluto’s surface as it rotates.
“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” stated Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”
The images the spacecraft returns will dramatically improve as New Horizons speeds closer to its July rendezvous with Pluto.
“We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer,” stated Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.
New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
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