This is Exactly What New Horizons saw Zipping by Pluto

Post 4798

Mika McKinnon

This is Exactly What New Horizons saw Zipping by Pluto

This is Exactly What New Horizons saw Zipping by Pluto

When the New Horizons spacecraft raced past Pluto this summer, it constantly snapped photographs both coming and going. This is exactly what it saw while zooming past the frozen dwarf planet. Whoa.

We’ve seen fan-art of what the probe might have seen in a simulationinterpolated from public image releases. But now NASA is providing their version of what it would be like to hitch a ride on the spacecraft as it skedaddled through the system. New Horizons skimmed just 12,500 kilometers (7,800 miles) over Pluto at roughly 14.5 kilometers per second (32,435 miles per hour), a multi-year journey culminating in just a few days of data. From Charon tugging Pluto around its orbit, soaring over the frozen plains of Tombaugh Regio, to the glow of the nightside before finally fading into a crescent, the spacecraft’s journey is summed up in just one word: gorgeous.

The New Horizons probe is alive and well, scooting out to keep exploring the Kuiper Belt. Image releases will resume this September, with new data downlinking throughout 2016 for even more discoveries. The spacecraft will be making orbital corrections this fall to redirect to its next target, the tiny 2014 Mu69.

Update: Want to learn more about how the animation was crafted?hanearlparkfound a description by Stuart Robbins, the scientist who created the animation, here:

The final product goes from one second of movie time equaling 30 hours at the beginning and end, to one second of movie time equaling 30 minutes for the closest-approach section.

The movie starts and ends with the camera targeting the barycenter, the mutual point around which Pluto, Charon and the other four moons orbit. As the movie appears to zoom in for the Pluto flyby, the focus shifts to Pluto itself, and then it moves off Pluto so that it does not appear as though you are about to crash into the surface nor fly through the planet. The camera target remains on Pluto for the solar occultation – when the sun passes behind it – and then moves back to the barycenter for the solar occultation by Charon.

Fourth, the small moons – Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra – were simply too small and faint to be seen to-scale. So I enlarged them by a factor of 5 and brightened them so you can at least see the two larger ones (Nix and Hydra), and I drew in their orbital paths.

Hitch a Ride on New Horizons in Latest Flyover Animation from Pluto

That’s it. I’m packing my bags, hitching a ride on the next rocket, and finding a way to skate on the icy nitrogen glaciers of Pluto. The latest flover animation from New Horizons data takes us soaring in the skies over the aching expanses of Sputnik Planum and the jagged teeth of Hillary Montes.

Check out glaciers of nitrogen ice, infilled craters, weirdly textured plains, and jagged hard ice mountains in this animation constructed from the close-approach photographs taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015:

The flyover adds to a previous animation of the probe’s photographs of Tombaugh Regio and Norgay Montes with new footage of the Sputnik Planum and Hillary Montes.

The Norgay Montes is a massive hard-ice mountain range equivalent to the Rocky Mountains in western North America, and was named in honour of sherpa Tenzing Norgay. The newly-named Hillary Montes complete the Everest-summiting duo by adding a namesake for Edmund Hillary. Hillary Montes are a smaller range, more equivalent to our Appalachians in the Eastern United States.

Sputnik Planum are plains with odd textures most likely from some form of thermal activity. Whether the activity is convective upwelling of liquid nitrogen hiding in porespace within the icy crust or thermal contraction of a cooling surface is yet to be determined.

The simulated flyovers are based on images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on the New Horizons probe. The spacecraft was 77,000 kilometers (48,000 miles) above the dwarf planet’s surface while taking the photograph. The resolution is good enough Maddie Stoneto identify features as small as 1 kilometer (0.5 miles) in diameter.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a detailed geomorphic breakdown of what’s going on.

Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

This is a Single, Endless Day on Pluto

This is a Single, Endless Day on Pluto

The New Horizons spacecraft photographed the day side of the dwarf planet Pluto during its flyby this July. Here’s a full rotation from the iconic heart to the squibbly backside that will taunt us with mysteries until the next time we visit the far reaches of the solar system.

The New Horizons spacecraft flew past its closest approach with Pluto in July 2015, and is now heading farther out into deep space. Only the initial, highest-priority data has been sent to Earth so far, limiting us to just a handful ofgorgeous close-ups andtantalizing hints of riddles waiting to be unravelled. We already knew that night on Pluto was spectacularly beautiful, but in this latest composite image from New Horizons team member Don Jennings we also know that perpetual daylight is lovely, too.

This is a Single, Endless Day on Pluto

A full day on Pluto is approximately 153 hours long (6.39 Earth-days), so the gap between each image captures 15 hours and 20 minutes of rotation. The red arrow marks a fixed point on the dwarf planet’s surface, offering a frame of reference in each time-stepped rotation. Like our own Earth’s poles, parts of Pluto are inperpetual daylight for the season with neither sunrises nor sunsets. The biggest difference is that with a year 247.7 Earth-years long, that season of endless summer (or perpetual darkness on the far side of the dwarf planet) lasts a lot, lot longer!

Images: A full rotation of Pluto as captured by the New Horizons probe during its July 2015 flyby of the dwarf planet. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/ Don Jennings

Contact the author at or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.

Pluto Looks Dazzling in This New Exaggerated Color Image

Maddie Stone

Pluto Looks Dazzling in This New Exaggerated Color Image

Now that’s a planet, folks! Classification be damned, Pluto is an amazing little world, and this high-res, enhanced-color image is the latest awe-inspiring portrait of it. And it’s revealing all sorts of fascinating details about the dwarf planet’s active surface.

This exquisite new global view of Pluto combines four images taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from a distance of 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers), in addition to color data from the Ralph instrument. We can now see bumps and craters as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) across on Pluto’s surface.

Exaggerated color images are more than just eye candy. As the New Horizons science team explained in a press conference today, colors are helping to tell the story of the dwarf planet’s very complicated pattern of seasonal ice transport. Pluto has a highly elliptical orbit, which means that compared to Earth it gets both much closer and much farther away from the Sun during its 248 Earth-year rotation. What’s more, Pluto’s north pole is tilted at an angle of 120 degrees relative to its orbital plane. Together, these factors mean that different parts of the surface receive different amounts of sunlight throughout a Pluto year, powering the sublimation of ice into the atmosphere.

According to the New Horizons science team, the deep reddish color we see in Pluto’s southwestern hemisphere is probably due to ice particles filled with dark red hydrocarbons called tholins, which are forming in Pluto’s atmosphere. When this region gets hit with direct sunlight, its reddish ice gets volatilized and transported toward the north pole, where it recondenses onto the surface. This pattern of ice sublimation and deposition is probably why we’re seeing distinct latitudinal color bands.

Of course, the ‘heart’ region now called Tombaugh Regio clearly interrupts this reddish gradient. The science team suspects that the western half (or left lobe) of Pluto’s heart is a major source region for a different kind of ice — but we don’t yet know why. Just another mystery that we’ll continue to unravel as data streams in over the next year and a half — remember, folks, we’ve only downlinked 4 to 5% of the information so far.


Contact the author at or follow her on Twitter.

Top image via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


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