Washington: For the first time, images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have unveiled bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto – the primary target of the probe’s close flyby in mid-July. The images were captured in early to mid-April from within 113 million kilometres, using the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed images beamed back to Earth.
Scientists interpreted the data to show the dwarf planet has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap. “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,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate here.
“As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons,” said Grunsfeld. Also captured in the images is Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, 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.
Since it was discovered in 1930, Pluto has remained an enigma. It orbits our Sun more than about 5 billion kilometres from Earth, and researchers 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 travelling 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,” said 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,” said Stern. The images the spacecraft returns will dramatically improve as New Horizons speeds closer to its July rendezvous with Pluto, NASA said. “We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 12,500 kilometres above Pluto’s surface this summer,” said Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.