NASA Releases Stunning Photos Of Pluto, Charon

Posted: Jul 14 2018, 11:16am CDT | by , Updated: Jul 14 2018, 11:40am CDT, in Latest Science News


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A view of Pluto's highest mountains, via NASA
A view of Pluto's highest mountains, via NASA

For the New Horizons spacecraft's third anniversary of its dramatic flyby of Pluto, some amazing new images have been released.

It has been exactly three years since NASA's New Horizons spacecraft blasted past the former ninth planet, Pluto, and sent back incredible images of this mysterious dwarf. Today, NASA is releasing new images of Pluto along with its moon, Charon, and they are truly a sight to behold.

Pluto was traveling at 13.8 kilometers per second when it flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, and it was just 12,500 kilometers from the dwarf's surface at its closest. The New Horizons team has published both global and topographic maps of Pluto and Charon, which are the first of their kind.

The resolution is incredible, with some areas of Pluto boasting 70 meters per pixel and even the Charon images having 1.5 kilometers per pixel. They're available at NASA's Planetary Data System, but they will be tough for non-experts without the right computer programs to process in a way that makes any sense.

“From a completionist’s point of view, they are all the good data we have, stitched together into a coherent, complete mosaic,” says planetary scientist Ross Beyer of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., according to a Science News report.

The charts cover about 42 percent of Pluto's surface and about 45 percent of Charon's surface. They are created from images snapped from two angles during the 2015 flyby. By capturing them from two angles, scientists were able to accurately estimate height and depth in the landscapes.

Additionally, it's been four decades since the discovery of Charon, and NASA released a statement recently talking about the incredible discovery by James Christy and Robert Harrington at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Interestingly, Charon was discovered just six miles from where Pluto was discovered at the Lowell Observatory. And Christy was just trying to refine Pluto's orbit around the sun, not discover a new satellite.

New Horizons scientists thought they'd find a "monotonous, crater-battered world" when the spacecraft flew past Charon, but the landscape was actually fascinating, covered with huge mountains and canyons, and with strange surface colors and even a polar cap.

“Even if Pluto wasn’t there, Charon would have been a great flyby target by itself,” said Will Grundy, a New Horizons science team co-investigator from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in the NASA statement. “It’s a far more exciting world than we imagined.”

On June 22, 1978, Christy spotted a small bump on the side of Pluto that he found odd.

"As he looked at other images he saw the bump again and again, only this time moving from one side of Pluto to another," the statement reads. "Further examination showed the bump seemed to move around Pluto, cycling back and forth over Pluto's own rotation period – 6.39 days. He figured either Pluto possessed a mountain thousands of miles high, or it had a satellite in a synchronous orbit. In the 48 years that had passed since Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory in 1930, no evidence of any moon of Pluto had ever been spotted.

"The Naval Observatory detailed the next steps to confirm the possible moon in a 1998 story about the 20th anniversary of the discovery: Christy scoured the observatory's image archives and found more cases where Pluto appeared strangely elongated," it continues. "He measured the angle (from north) where the elongations appeared, while his colleague Robert Harrington calculated what the answer "should be" if the elongation was caused by an orbiting satellite."

As it turned out, the calculations matched up. However, like a true scientist, he waited for the 61-inch telescope owned by the Naval Observatory to make the confirmation, and new images did indeed prove that there was a Pluto satellite on July 2, 1998. The amazing discovery was announced five days later.

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