From a “mere” 93 million miles away we’re able to view the surface of our home star the Sun very well with telescopes on Earth and in space…you can even observe large sunspots with your unaided eye (with proper protection, of course.) But the surface details of other stars tens, hundreds, or thousands of light-years away can’t be so easily resolved from Earth. The details are just too fine and get lost in the brilliance of the stars themselves.
But astronomers have now produced the best image yet of the surface of another star beyond our Solar System. Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer, located on a high plateau in Chile’s Atacama Desert where the sky is some of the clearest and driest in the world, a team of scientists have mapped the movement of material in the atmosphere of Antares, a red supergiant star 700 times the size of our Sun that shines brightly in the heart of the constellation Scorpius. The observations enabled them to determine how material moves through Antares’ atmosphere and then construct an image of the star itself—the most accurate representation of another star besides the Sun.
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:
This is Pluto, imaged by New Horizons’ LORRI camera on July 12. It’s (once again) the best view yet, captured from a distance of 2.5 million km / 1.5 million miles. Check out all that geology – craters, depressions, chaos terrain of some sort… at no time in human history has anyone ever seen this world in such detail.* And tomorrow, the spacecraft will pass within a scant 7,767 miles of its surface at 7:49 a.m. EDT / 11:49 UTC, its high-resolution Ralph camera firing away.
So… WHO’S EXCITED??
NASA and JHUAPL will be hosting media broadcasts tomorrow morning starting at 7:30 a.m. EDT during the flyby events (although “live” footage won’t be possible due to the fact that the spacecraft is four and a half hours of light-travel time away.) See the schedule here, and of course you can always tune in to watch NASA TV with the link in the header bar above.
*Although artist Don Dixon pretty much nailed Pluto’s appearance in some illustrations he made in 1979 – check those out here.
Taken from a distance of about 69 to 64 million miles – just about the distance between the Sun and Venus – the images that make up this animation were captured by the LORRI imaging instrument aboard the New Horizons spacecraft and show its first detection of surface features on Pluto, including what may be the bright reflection of a polar ice cap!
The surface of Venus is definitely no easy place to which to send a spacecraft. Crushing atmospheric pressures, powerful high-altitude winds amid caustic clouds of sulfuric acid, and temperatures that can soar above 880ºF (475ºC) make the next planet in a no-man’s-land for robotic spacecraft. But those challenges didn’t stop the Soviet space program from successfully putting several craft onto Venus’ surface in the 70s and early 80s, giving us our first views of its kiln-dried landscape.
Venera-3 became the fist spacecraft on the surface of another planet when it impacted Venus on March 1, 1966, but no data was returned. The next year Venera-4 was sent to Venus but was likely crushed by its atmosphere. Venera-7 became the first spacecraft to successfully soft-land on Venus on Dec. 15, 1970, sending back temperature data. Venera-8 landed on July 22, 1970, taking light measurements and confirming suitable levels for imaging. On Oct. 22, 1975, the Venera-9 lander returned the first image data from the surface of Venus before going out of range of the orbiting spacecraft 53 minutes later (and succumbing to harsh surface conditions after that) with Venera-10 landing three days later. Then, on March 1, 1982, Venera-13 landed on Venus, analyzing soil and capturing the first color images from the planet’s surface.
The image above is a section of a larger panorama. See the full image below: