We’re all familiar with Pluto’s iconic heart-shaped feature and all the internet memes it inspired during the historic New Horizons flyby on July 14.
Now, thanks to New Horizons scientist Don Jennings, we have our first clear glimpse of the entire backside of Pluto — and it’s very strange.
Jennings compiled the images to show what Pluto’s orbit looks like. The red arrows serve as a fixed reference point, so you can see where things are in relation to, for example, Pluto’s giant frozen heart:
A full day on Pluto lasts about 6.4 Earth days (153 hours), so each of the snapshots of Pluto above represents about 15 hours of rotation time.
So far, the strange dark swirls, spots, and splotches are the most intriguing features on the backside — no one is certain what they are:
New Horizons wasn’t facing this side of Pluto when it flew by, which means the data is limited. It’s also why this image is a little fuzzy. Also not helping quickly solve these mysteries: The spacecraft can only beam back a small trickle of data at any given moment. New Horizons is so far away from Earth — well over 3 billion miles now — that it takes images and other data a really long time to reach us.
So, it may take scientists a long time to figure out what’s going on here. Or perhaps not at all; NASA might ultimately have to launch another spacecraft to Pluto to get a clearer look.
Scientists are shocked by what they have learned about Pluto so far, though. We have several more months of data to look forward to, so who knows what other surprises Pluto might hold.
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