Leading up to its historic flyby of the distant dwarf planet Pluto, NASA’s New Horizon’s probe has sent back some of the most intriguing images of Pluto to date. One of the images, received in the early hours of July 8th, was taken from just under five million miles away from Pluto.
A NASA press release provided more detail about the striking image:
This view is centered roughly on the area that will be seen close-up during New Horizons’ July 14 closest approach. This side of Pluto is dominated by three broad regions of varying brightness. Most prominent are an elongated dark feature at the equator, informally known as “the whale,” and a large heart-shaped bright area measuring some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) across on the right. Above those features is a polar region that is intermediate in brightness.
NASA officials said that the heart-shaped feature is about 1,200 miles wide, and the dark patch on the bottom left, which mission scientists have taken to calling “the whale,” is about 1,860 miles long.
Jeff Moore, the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team Leader at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said that when the world sees Pluto at closest approach, a portion of the region seen in this image will be about 500 times sharper. “It will be incredible!” Moore said.
New Horizons helps create new maps of Pluto
Among New Horizons’ other contributions this week was a new map of Pluto’s surface. The center of the map is the portion that New Horizons will photograph from up close during its flyby.
This new map allows scientists to digest the “big picture” of Pluto’s geographical features, giving them their first taste of bigger discoveries to come. A NASA press release from July 7th speculated on some of the potential findings in the map:
Directly to the right of the whale’s “head” is the brightest region visible on the planet, which is roughly 990 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. This may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost—perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide—form a bright coating.
For those who simply can’t wait to view the dwarf planet up close – albeit at an extremely low resolution for now – Google Earth wasted no time in compiling a 3D map of Pluto for users to download and explore.
And don’t forget to check in with us periodically as we strive to bring you the best and most up-to-date images and news of Pluto.