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:
If you thought this was a model sculpted for a science-fiction film, I’d forgive you… but it’s totally real! In this closer view, which spans an area of about 230 miles (380 km) across, Pluto’s 11,000-foot-high Norgay Montes cast long shadows and reflect light into the low-level fog while the frozen Sputnik Planum stretches off to the horizon at right. Banding in Pluto’s nitrogen atmosphere can be made out, not unlike what has been seen in Titan’s high-level haze (although with very different compositions and processes.)
Let me sum up what we’re looking at here: this is sunset in the mountains of PLUTO!
“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”
In another image shadows cast by Pluto’s mountains extend through a foggy atmosphere. There’s a lot going on both on Pluto’s surface as well as above it!
“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system. If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.”
— Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, Southwest Research Institute
The images were acquired with New Horizons’ wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) and were received on Earth on Sept. 13. With the relatively slow bandwidth speed of the spacecraft’s transmitter and the enormous distance between it and Earth (33 times farther away from the Sun and increasing daily) it will take over a year to downlink all of New Horizons’ data from its flyby. But, as these pics show, it’ll be worth the wait!
In addition to the stunning views above a new high-resolution image has also arrived of Pluto’s 750-mile-wide moon Charon, captured by New Horizons about 10 hours before its close pass by Pluto. In this new version, details on Charon’s surface are resolved down to 2.9 miles (4.6 km).
See more images from the New Horizons mission to Pluto and into the Kuiper Belt here.
Source: New Horizons/SwRI/NASA HT to Alex Parker for the hi-res.
*Update: here’s an even closer look, made by cropping and enlarging the MVIC image above. Enhance!!!