Yesterday (April 14, 2015), NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft team released this tantalizing first color image of Pluto and its Texas-sized moon Charon. The team called this image a preliminary reconstruction, which they said will be refined later. The spacecraft acquired the image from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers)-roughly the distance from the sun to Venus. New Horizons is now only three months from its historic encounter with Pluto. The flyby through the Pluto system will take place on July 14, at which time the spacecraft will deliver color images that eventually show surface features as small as a few miles across.
New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched and may be the only spacecraft to sweep past Pluto in our lifetimes. It has traveled a longer time and farther away – more than nine years and three billion miles (4.8 billion km) – than any space mission in history to reach the Pluto system, which consists of the dwarf planet and its five known moons.
NASA pointed out yesterday that New Horizons’ flyby of the Pluto system on July 14 will:
… complete the initial reconnaissance of the classical solar system. This mission also opens the door to an entirely new ‘third’ zone of mysterious small planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt, a large area with numerous objects beyond Neptune’s orbit.
Principal investigator Alan Stern said the mission would mark the first up-close look at a binary planet. He called Pluto a binary because its large moon Charon is so nearly like Pluto in size.
Between now and July 14, New Horizons will get closer and closer to Pluto and its moons, and the image quality will rapidly improve. At closest approach, New Horizons will sweep through the Pluto system at a speed of 30,000 mph (50,000 kilometers per hour).
The pictures captured during that flyby will have a resolution as sharp as a quarter-mile (400 meters) per pixel. In his great column at NBCNews, Alan Boyle pointed out this will be:
… sharp enough to make out New York’s Central Park if New Horizons were to fly by Earth instead.
Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, which built and operates the spacecraft, expressed the NASA team’s excitement when she said:
Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we know we have just one shot to make this work.
We’ve plotted out each step of the Pluto encounter, practiced it over and over, and we’re excited the ‘real deal’ is finally here.
She added that the spacecraft’s work doesn’t end with the July flyby. Because it gets one shot at its target, New Horizons is designed to gather as much data as it can, as quickly as it can, taking about 100 times as much data on close approach as it can send home before flying away.
And although the spacecraft will send select, high-priority datasets home in the days just before and after close approach, the mission will continue returning the data stored in onboard memory for a full 16 months. That means we can expect exciting views and revelations from the Pluto-Charon encounter for many months following mid-July.
Alan Boyle listed a string of potential discoveries that Pluto scientists say may lie ahead:
– New moons to add to Pluto’s known retinue of five, and perhaps rings of icy material as well.
– Clues to the compositional differences between Pluto and Charon — which, like our own moon, is thought to have been formed out of the debris from a planetary crash.
– Nearly global maps of Pluto and Charon, including permanently shadowed polar regions of Pluto that will have to be illuminated for New Horizons’ cameras by Charon’s reflected moonlight.
– Liquid layers that may lie within Pluto and Charon, consisting of water or more exotic materials. “There could be rivers of neon that have been speculated about,” Stern said.
Finally, as NASA mentioned yesterday the upcoming flyby of the Pluto system caps a five-decade-long era of reconnaissance that began with Venus and Mars in the early 1960s, and continued through first looks at Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s and Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.
We space fans who have lived through this fascinating era of the initial exploration of so many of the worlds – large and small – in our solar system are lucky indeed.
Bottom line: With just three months to go before its historic sweep past Pluto on July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft has obtained its first color image of Pluto and Charon. The image is a preliminary reconstruction, which the New Horizons science team will refine in the weeks to come to show more detail.