Now over four months after the historic and long-awaited flyby of Pluto by New Horizons, planetary scientists have had a steady stream of unprecedented data arriving on Earth from the outwardly-speeding spacecraft. We’ve learned more about Pluto in the past few months than we had over the decades before and the information is still being analyzed — and is still coming. This surprising little world and its strange family of mismatched moons, 33 times farther from the Sun than us, has become in the latter half of 2015 the scientific “star of the Solar System.” (Take that all you can’t-be-a-planet folks!)
“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the Solar System. Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”
– Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, SwRI
At the beginning of September the world was treated to a fantastic view of the night side of Pluto, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it departed the distant icy world on July 14, 2015. Backlit by the sun, Pluto’s surprisingly complex atmospheric haze created a ghostly glow above its crescent-lit limb while frozen mountains cast reflected light upon neighboring Plutonian peaks.
On Thursday, NASA released an update to that image showing a more complete view of Pluto in its backlit glory, created from more high-resolution images that continue to stream in from the Kuiper Belt-bound spacecraft, over three billion miles away.
For decades, far-off Pluto and its moons were just a collection of bright spots in even our most powerful telescopes. Now the dwarf planet and its family of five moons has been revealed in intimate detail with the long-awaited flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft.
Last week the “family portrait” of the Pluto system was made complete when our best close-up arrived of Kerberos, a tiny 7-mile-wide moon that nobody even knew about until 2011. And surprise: it looks like a contact binary!
Just a week after releasing some of the most incredible images of a planetary surface ever, the New Horizons team did it again today with even more new views of distant Pluto — this time with a high-resolution enhanced color image of Pluto that just begs to be intimately explored, pixel by pixel (and this is, in fact, what SwRI team member Alex Parker had to do over the past week in order to prepare the image for presentation.)
A low-res version is seen here, in which I have expanded the edges in order to fit nicely on a HD monitor in the event that you might want to use it as a desktop image (like me.) But in order to really experience it you have to download the full 8000×8000-pixel version here, which may take some time depending on the activity NASA’s servers are getting but trust me, it’s worth it.
There’s a lot going on in this image, which is by the way our highest-resolution enhanced-color image yet of Pluto, and you can read all about it here. But for now just enjoy. There will be much more to come!
Source: NASA/New Horizons
But they are real, and that’s what’s so great!
Obviously you’re already looking at one of them above: it’s a view of Pluto captured after New Horizons had already made its closest pass over Pluto on July 14 and was moving into its night side, giving a literally unprecedented perspective of the planet in backlit detail. With this low-angle lighting Pluto’s surface features are emphasized and its multi-layered atmospheric haze is highlighted in amazing detail.
Incredible, right? Well, get an even better look in the next one: