NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently captured humanity’s first ever glimpse of Pluto and its moon Charon in full color from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers).
Although the photo taken by New Horizons’ Ralph color imager offers little more than a pair of yellowish-brown smudges, this is a historic event that is just the first of many increasingly clearer views of Pluto and its many moons to come.
New Horizons is set to reach and flyby Pluto sometime this July, beaming back tons of fascinating never-before-seen close up color images of Pluto and its many moons. While plans to orbit Pluto are impossible given the dwarf planet’s minuscule gravitational pull and the extraordinary speed at which New Horizons is traveling (at more than 50,000 kph, or 31,000 mph), planetary scientists are already salivating in anticipation of the tomes of new data this speeding probe will be capturing.
What to expect from New Horizons as it flies past Pluto
To maximize the accuracy of data New Horizons is expected to collect, the full brunt of the probe’s observational prowess will not kick in until it nears its closest point to Pluto, which will be 12,500 kilometers (7,750 miles) from the dwarf planet’s surface. As it approaches and speeds past Pluto, the probe will capture “100 times as much data on close approach as it can send home before flying away.” In fact, it’ll take at least 16 months to send back all the data New Horizons collects.
Ever since New Horizons was launched back in 2006, NASA/ESA instruments have discovered four additional moons orbiting Pluto, with a few more suspected and awaiting confirmation once more data is collected.
According to New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver at APL, “New Horizons is one of the great explorations of our time. There’s so much we don’t know, not just about Pluto, but other worlds like it. We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch.”