Right now, there is a piano-sized spacecraft barreling through space at over 36,000 miles per hour with a very important destination: the dwarf planet Pluto and its system of five moons.
On July 8, the NASA spacecraft, called New Horizons, was 3.7 million miles away from Pluto when it used its LORRI camera on board to snap the first clear photo of Pluto ever taken! Here it is, the first clear photo with Pluto’s largest moon Charon on the left:
Even with a powerful telescope like Hubble, Pluto is simply too small and far away to get a good, clear look at it from Earth.
That’s why, in 2006, NASA launched New Horizons on its 9-year, 2.9 billion-mile journey to Pluto. Now, the spacecraft has less than a few million miles left before its closest approach on July 14.
In this latest image, shown below in black and white, the spacecraft reveals two very different worlds: Pluto has distinctive contrasting dark and light colours on its surface while Charon has a much smoother surface.
“These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different,” Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator of New Horizons, said in a NASA statement.
New Horizons has seven instruments on board that will be studying Pluto in more detail than any of its five moons, including Charon. However, simply from detailed images like this — and many more to come as New Horizons closes in on Pluto — scientists will still get a better understanding of Charon like they never have before.
“If we see impact craters on Charon, it will help us see what’s hidden beneath the surface,” said New Horizons’ team member Jeff Moore in the NASA statement.
A closer look at Pluto (left) and Charon (right) together shows just how different these two worlds are on their surface:
At 36,000 miles per hour, New Horizons is closing in on Pluto, fast. With that speed, it will take it only less than a month — 27 days to be exact — to cover 1 million miles!
NASA has carefully calibrated the spacecraft to fly within 6,000 miles of Pluto on July 14. That’s 600 times closer than it was on July 8 when it snapped that clear photo at the top of this post.
From 6,000 miles, the sophisticated instruments on the spacecraft will be able to resolve features on the surface of Pluto that are the size of Manhattan Island. Here’s an example of just how detailed that is:
So stay tuned: Photos of Pluto like you’ve never seen before are coming soon.
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