NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has returned high-resolution, richly detailed images of Pluto and its moon Charon, revealing surfaces that are confounding in their complexity.

Science instruments on New Horizons
New Horizons is equipped with seven instruments for studying all aspects of the Pluto system. Click on the image to see brief descriptions of each instrument.

It's been two months since the New Horizons spacecraft zipped by Pluto and its family of moons. Because of the spacecraft's rather small radio antenna, only a handful of images and other data could be returned to Earth during and just after the historic encounter. Then the spacecraft stopped returning images for several weeks while it gathered critical measurements of the solar wind's charged particles and electromagnetic fields.

But the picture pipeline reopened beginning on September 5th, and the project team has released several new images that show even more detail on the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Some resolve images as small as 400 meters (¼ mile) across. While few researchers expected these dwarf worlds to appear drab, ho-hum spheres randomly pocked with impact craters, planetary scientists have been gobsmacked by the geologic breadth and complexity that each displays.

So feast your eyes on New Horizons' just-released images. Many more like these, along with detailed spectra and other observations, await transmission to Earth. (I can't wait to learn whether the spacecraft succeeded in recording the night side of Pluto illuminated only by feeble light reflected off Charon.) In fact, mission scientists have started making weekly postings of raw, unprocessed views from the spacecraft's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). This week's additions include images of Charon, Nix, and Hydra.

Demoted dwarf planet or "King of the Kuiper Belt"? Get to know Pluto (and the New Horizons mission) with the Discover Pluto Collection now available through ShopatSky.

Spherical mosaic of Pluto
This computer-generated perspective of Pluto utilizes high-resolution images taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. It shows what you'd see from a vantage point roughly 1,800 km (1,100 miles) above Pluto’s equatorial area. The view looks northeast over the dark, cratered terrain (informally named Cthulhu Regio) and toward a bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains (Sputnik Planum). The area shown is 1,800 km (1,100 miles) across.
Detailed surface features on Pluto
The informally named Sputnik Planum dominates this mosaic of high-resolution images of Pluto. Note the smooth, bright region across the center. This image also features a tremendous variety of other landscapes over an area roughly 1,600 km (1,000 miles) wide. New Horizons recorded these views from a distance of 80,000 km (50,000 miles) on July 14, 2015.
Pluto chaos region
In the center of this 470-km-wide (300-mile) portion of Pluto is a large region of jumbled, broken terrain that planetary geologists term "chaotic." It's located on the northwestern edge of the vast, icy plain informally called Sputnik Planum (to the right). The smallest visible features are 0.8 km (0.5 mile) across. New Horizons took this image on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 80,000 km (50,000 miles).
Dark areas on Pluto
Pluto displays incredibly diverse surface reflectivities and geological landforms. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes whose origin is under debate. The view is 350 km (220 miles) wide, and the smallest visible features are 0.8 km (0.5 mile) across.
Pluto's limb in twilight
A New Horizons image, processed two different ways, shows how Pluto's bright, high-altitude atmospheric haze produces a twilight that softly illuminates the surface before sunrise and after sunset, allowing the spacecraft's sensitive cameras to see details in nighttime regions that would otherwise be invisible. The righthand version of the image has been greatly enhanced to bring out faint details of rugged haze-lit topography beyond Pluto’s day-night terminator.
Pluto haze comparison
Two different versions of an image of Pluto's haze layers, taken by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto's dark side nearly 16 hours after close approach, from a distance of 770,000 km (480,000 miles) and a Sun-Pluto-spacecraft phase angle of 166°. (The Sun illuminates Pluto from the upper right.) These images, much higher quality than the digitally compressed versions sent to Earth shortly after the July 14th encounter, allow many new details to be seen. In the left version, faint surface details can be seen through the haze on the narrow sunlit crescent at upper right. Subtle parallel streaks in the haze might be crepuscular rays — shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountains, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the Sun sets behind mountains on Earth. The righthand version has been specially processed to reveal a large number of discrete haze layers in the atmosphere.
High-resolution view of Charon
New Horizons captured this view of Charon from a distance of 470,000 km (290,000 miles) and about 10 hours before coming its closest to Pluto on July 14, 2015. About 1,200 km (750 miles) in diameter, Charon displays a surprisingly complex geological history, including tectonic fracturing, relatively smooth, fractured plains (seen at lower right), several enigmatic mountains surrounded by sunken terrain features (right side), and heavily cratered regions (center of disk and at upper left). The surface also displays complex reflectivity patterns, including bright and dark crater rays and the conspicuous dark region at the north pole. The smallest visible features are 4.6 km (2.9 miles) across.



Image of gbtate


September 12, 2015 at 1:04 pm

These images stir a voracious appetite in me to walk the planet's surface and paint it first hand.

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September 13, 2015 at 8:47 pm

Now, at least, you can paint it secondhand, Gayle!

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