Humanity arrived at Pluto in July, when the New Horizons spacecraft completed its 3 billion-mile journey to the distant dwarf planet. But since last week, the team has been downloading a set of what are the highest-resolution images that we'll ever see of Pluto (unless we go back, that is). So in a sense it feels like now — despite the publishing of a bevy of photos taken from just about every angle — we're finally seeing Pluto for what it really is: an incredible, feature-rich world that looks more and more like the one we live on, even if it's not a planet.
A new high-resolution mosaic released today is very similar to last week's, in that it is big and chock full of stuff to gawk at. Unlike it, though, the terrain is much rougher. This mosaic of images instead shows off some of the western hemisphere of Pluto (at least, the western hemisphere of the face of Pluto we're all now familiar with). This side of the dwarf planet is a mess of craters created by asteroid impacts, and mountains that stretch a few miles into Pluto's thin atmosphere. The image even gives us our best look yet at Wright Mons, one of the mountains that could potentially be an ice volcano. (NASA, true to form, adorably hedges on whether or not it is one in the release, calling Wright Mons a "possibly cryovolcanic edifice.")
So much contrast, so many kinds of landscapes. Wrinkles, ridges, mountains, pits, craters. #Plutoplutopluto pic.twitter.com/1RgHNuOG6b— Alex Parker (@Alex_Parker) December 17, 2015
It's a stark contrast to that eastern side of Pluto, where shifting ice floes and other geological activity keep the surface relatively young and smooth, erasing those pockmarks that have been created over the years. This new combination of images resolves details as small as 500 yards across, so every mountain, every canyon, every icy pit and crater are all shown in wild detail. Looking at the full resolution version, it almost feels like you're looking out the window of an airplane that just happens to be passing Pluto.
But it's a good thing that none of us are actually on board New Horizons, because it has a very long, cold, and dark journey ahead of it. It's a journey that could wind up giving us a look at another, smaller world in the Kuiper Belt — known as 2014 MU69 — but it's also one that, no matter what, ends with a dead spacecraft that will relentlessly advance deeper into the void.