Our Best Images of Pluto

This mosaic is composed of the sharpest views of Pluto that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft obtained during its flyby of the distant planet on July 14, 2015.

Here’s NASA’s description of the image:

This mosaic is composed of the sharpest views of Pluto that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft obtained during its flyby of the distant planet on July 14, 2015. The pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel — revealing features smaller than half a city block on Pluto’s diverse surface. The images include a wide variety of spectacular, cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains — giving scientists and the public alike a breathtaking, super-high resolution window on Pluto’s geology. The images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide trending from Pluto’s jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Sputnik Planum and then across its icy plains. They were made with the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons, over a timespan of about a minute centered on 11:36 UT on July 14 — just about 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto — from a range of just 10,000 miles (17,000 kilometers). They were obtained with an unusual observing mode; instead of working in the usual “point and shoot,” LORRI snapped pictures every three seconds while the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons was scanning the surface. This mode requires unusually short exposures to avoid blurring the images.

Image Credit: NASA

You Can’t See This From Here

PlutoNightNew Horizons was about 21,000 kilometers beyond Pluto, about 19 minutes after its closest approach, when it took this picture. The image also reveals Pluto’s tenuous and complex layers of hazy atmosphere. The crescent twilight landscape near the top of the frame are areas on the south of the planet including the nitrogen ice plains informally known as Sputnik Planum and rugged mountains of water-ice in the Norgay Montes.

Image Credit: NASA

This Can’t Be Seen From Earth

nh-pluto-atmosphere-infraredThis image from the New Horizons spacecraft is our first look at Pluto’s atmosphere in infrared wavelengths. It was taken after the spacecraft was beyond Pluto’s orbit, so the planet is backlit with sunlight coming from above and behind. New Horizons was about 180,000 km beyond Pluto. The false color image codes wavelengths around 1.25 µm as blue, 2.5 µm as red, and intermediate wavelengths as green. North in this image is at roughly 10 o’clock.

The blue band is the result of sunlight being scattered by haze particles in the planet’s atmosphere, haze which is suspected of being photochemical smog caused by the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules. These form hydrocarbons such as acetylene and ethylene which accumulate into small particles. The µm-sized scatter sunlight giving the haze its blue tint. It looks blue in visible light too.

The whitish patches around Pluto’s limb are from sunlight bouncing off more reflective or smoother areas on its surface.

Image Credit: NASA

The Far Side of Pluto

nh-pluto-atmosphere-infraredThis image from the New Horizons spacecraft was our first look at Pluto’s atmosphere in infrared wavelengths. The planet is backlit with sunlight coming from above and behind. The image was captured captured just after the flyby on 14 July, 2015, while New Horizons was about 180,000 km beyond Pluto. The false color image codes wavelengths around 1.25 µm as blue, 2.5 µm as red, and intermediate wavelengths as green. North in this image is at roughly 10 o’clock.

The blue band is the result of sunlight being scattered by haze particles in the planet’s atmosphere, haze which is suspected of being photochemical smog caused by the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules. These form hydrocarbons such as acetylene and ethylene which accumulate into small particles. The µm-sized scatter sunlight giving the haze its blue tint. It looks blue in visible light too. No SUVs were detected during the flyby, so this is likely a natural process. Note that Pluto is moving further from the Sun for the next century or so (it’s orbit is highly eccentric), so it is experiencing global cooling.

The whitish patches around Pluto’s limb are from sunlight bouncing off more reflective or smoother areas on its surface.

Image Credit: NASA

Nix

Nix is one of Pluto’s small moons. It was discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. It was the best imaged of the small moons by the New Horizons spacecraft during the 2015 flyby of Pluto. This is the highest-resolution image of Nix. On 14 July, 2015, the basic image was captured in grayscale by LORRI camera and color has been added based on other images from Ralph MVIC.

Image Credit: NASA

Charon Lit by Plutoshine

This image was taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera aboard New Horizons on 15 July, 2015, when the spacecraft was around 160,000 km beyond Pluto. It shows the night side the moon Charon against a star field. Charon, which about the size of Texas, is mostly lit by faint light reflected from Pluto. The bright crescent on Charon’s right edge is a bit of sunlit terrain, overexposed compared to the rest of the image.

Image Credits: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Pluto Paints Charon Red

full-res-charonThe New Horizons spacecraft took this high-resolution, enhanced color photo of Pluto’s largest moon Charon just before closest approach on 14 July, 2015. This image was created by combining blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera. It’s been processed to highlight the variation of surface properties across Charon. The reddish material in the north (top) polar region (informally known as Mordor Macula) is methane that has escaped from Pluto’s atmosphere and been captured by Charon. Charon is 1,214 km across, and this image resolves details as small as 2.9 km.

Image Credit: NASA

The Dark Side of Pluto

PlutoNightNew Horizons was about 21,000 kilometers beyond Pluto, about 19 minutes after its closest approach, when it took this picture. The image also reveals Pluto’s tenuous and complex layers of hazy atmosphere. The crescent twilight landscape near the top of the frame are areas on the south of the planet including the nitrogen ice plains informally known as Sputnik Planum and rugged mountains of water-ice in the Norgay Montes.

Image Credit: NASA

The Ice Moon Hydra

hydraThe New Horizons spacecraft is still sending back data from its fly by of Pluto and the planet’s moons.  New data show the surface of Hydra, Pluto’s outermost small moon, is dominated by nearly pristine water ice. The infrared spectral data show the unmistakable signature of crystalline water ice: a broad absorption at wavelengths from 1.50 to 1.60 µm and a narrower water-ice spectral feature around 1.65 µm. Hydra’s spectrum is similar to that of Pluto’s largest moon Charon, which is also dominated by crystalline water ice. However, Hydra’s water-ice absorption bands are more pronounced than Charon’s, which could mean that ice grains on Hydra’s surface are larger or reflect more light at certain angles than the grains on Charon.

Hydra is thought to have formed in an icy debris disk produced when water-rich mantles were stripped from a pair of bodies that collided to form the Pluto-Charon binary system about 4 billion years ago.

Image Credit: NASA

Pluto Backlit in Infrared

nh-pluto-atmosphere-infraredThis image from the New Horizons spacecraft is our first look at Pluto’s atmosphere in infrared wavelengths. The planet is backlit with sunlight coming from above and behind. The image was captured captured just after the flyby on 14 July, 2015, while New Horizons was about 180,000 km beyond Pluto. The false color image codes wavelengths around 1.25 µm as blue, 2.5 µm as red, and intermediate wavelengths as green. North in this image is at roughly 10 o’clock.

The blue band is the result of sunlight being scattered by haze particles in the planet’s atmosphere, haze which is suspected of being photochemical smog caused by the action of sunlight on methane and other molecules. These form hydrocarbons such as acetylene and ethylene which accumulate into small particles. The µm-sized scatter sunlight giving the haze its blue tint. It looks blue in visible light too.

The whitish patches around Pluto’s limb are from sunlight bouncing off more reflective or smoother areas on its surface.

Image Credit: NASA