For the past nine years, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been whizzing through our solar system towards Pluto, the distant dwarf planet first discovered back in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. Now, to commemorate the late space scientist’s birthday, NASA has given us a new view of the icy world with a series of images taken by the probe last month.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
These snaps are the first pictures taken during the craft’s 2015 approach to the Pluto system, which will conclude with a close flyby of the dwarf planet in July. The images were taken with New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on two separate occasions last month.
These early images showcase Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, one of five known satellites orbiting the dwarf planet. Given that the images were taken at a distance of more than 200 million kilometers (126 million miles), they are pretty grainy to say the least. However, they certainly serve as a taster of what’s to come as the probe will continue to take images as it approaches the icy rock, creeping closer than any man-made craft has been before.
“Pluto is finally becoming more than just a pinpoint of light,” New Horizons project scientist said in a news release. “LORRI has now resolved Pluto, and the dwarf planet will continue to grow larger and larger in the images as New Horizons spacecraft hurtles toward its targets. The new LORRI images also demonstrate that the camera’s performance is unchanged since it was launched more than nine years ago.”
Although the Pluto system will appear as little more than bright blobs until late spring and hence won’t provide us with much scientific information, the images are being used to make sure that New Horizons is correctly lined up for the momentous flyby on July 14. With these so-called optical navigation surveys, members of the New Horizons team will be able to design a course that ensures the probe is not heading for any debris and adjust its trajectory accordingly. At its closest approach in July, when the spacecraft will come within almost 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) of Pluto, LORRI will capture surface details at less than 100m per pixel.
New Horizons is currently zipping through the solar system at close to 50,000 kph (31,000 mph), having travelled almost 5 billion kilometers (3 billion miles) since its launch back in 2006. Over the next few months—as the craft closes in on the Pluto system—dust, energetic particle and solar wind measurements will be taken alongside long-distance images in order to glean information about the surrounding space environment.
[Via Johns Hopkins, BBC News and PopSci]