At first glance this pixelated picture may not look all that spectacular, but it gains a whole new meaning when you realize what it’s actually showing: a look at the most distant crescent moon ever seen! But this isn’t Earth’s moon; it’s Charon, Pluto’s largest companion, lit by the light from a Sun 3.2 billion miles away—some of it even reflected off Pluto.
Whether you want to call it a planet, dwarf planet, Kuiper Belt Object, or some or none of the above, there’s no denying that Pluto and its family of moons are true curiosities in the Solar System. Not only does little Pluto have one moon — Charon — that’s so massive in comparison that they both actually orbit each other around a central point outside the radius of either (if you feel like adding “binary” to whatever term you prefer to use, go right ahead) but it also has four other smaller moons in orbit that kinda sorta break the rules of how moons are “supposed to” behave.
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:
At 3 p.m. EDT today, July 15 2015, from the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, the New Horizons team revealed to the world the first high-resolution image acquired of the surface of Pluto. This was obtained during the historic July 14 flyby with New Horizons’ “Ralph” camera, and it’s our very first close-up view of this distant world’s fascinating, beautiful, and surprisingly crater-free surface! Of course more will be coming as the days, weeks, and months pass, and many further studies will be done to determine the nature of all of the features revealed, but for now – enjoy.
This is truly an amazing time in space exploration!
Three days before New Horizons’ closest pass by Pluto and we already have the first final image of the mission: this is the last “best” view we will have of Pluto’s Charon-facing side, as the spacecraft will be acquiring its most detailed images of the planet’s opposite side on July 14.
Pluto and its largest moon Charon are locked together gravitationally, a scenario called tidal locking. The face of one is always aimed at the same face of the other, and they orbit around a point in space (the barycenter) that is located between the two (but closer to Pluto.) Thus the image above shows the side of Pluto that Charon always “sees.”*
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