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First color movies of Pluto and Charon

It’s not Disney quality, but these distant worlds are real and 3 billion miles (5 billion km) away.

The first color movies from NASA’s New Horizons mission show Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, and the complex orbital dance of the two bodies known as a double planet. The images were taken on nine different occasions from May 29-June 3.

Image credit: NASA

This movie is barycentric, meaning that both Pluto and Charon are shown in motion around the binary’s barycenter – the shared center of gravity between the two bodies as they do a planetary jig. Because Pluto is much more massive than Charon, the barycenter (marked by a small “x” in the movie) is much closer to Pluto than to Charon. Image credit: NASA

The New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, zipping by about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the surface. It’s the first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, a relic of solar system formation beyond Neptune.

Alan Stern is New Horizons Principal Investigator. Stern said:

It’s exciting to see Pluto and Charon in motion and in color. Even at this low resolution, we can see that Pluto and Charon have different colors—Pluto is beige-orange, while Charon is grey. Exactly why they are so different is the subject of debate.

Image credit: NASA

This movie is “Pluto-centric”, meaning that Charon is shown as it moves in relation to Pluto, which is digitally centered in the movie. (The North Pole of Pluto is at the top.) Pluto makes one turn around its axis every 6 days, 9 hours and 17.6 minutes—the same amount of time that Charon rotates in its orbit. Looking closely at the images in this movie, one can detect a regular shift in Pluto’s brightness—due to the brighter and darker terrains on its differing faces.Image credit: NASA

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These near-true color movies were assembled from images made in three colors — blue, red and near-infrared – by the Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera on the instrument known as Ralph, a “Honeymooners” reference that classic TV fans can appreciate. Although the two movies were prepared from the same images, they display the Pluto-Charon pair from different perspectives.

As New Horizons closes in its intended target, the best is yet to come. Cathy Olkin is New Horizons deputy project scientist. She said:

Color observations are going to get much, much better, eventually resolving the surfaces of Charon and Pluto at scales of just kilometers. This will help us unravel the nature of their surfaces and the way volatiles transport around their surfaces. I can’t wait; it’s just a few weeks away!

Read more from NASA

Eleanor Imster

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