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NASA’s new false-color images of Pluto and Charon are psychedelic and informative

One more thing...

We're still hours away from receiving confirmation that New Horizons lived through its flyby of Pluto, but that doesn't mean the team behind the spacecraft is twiddling their thumbs. This afternoon the team, led by principle investigator Alan Stern, released this wild exaggerated-color image of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

It's a much different look from the first clear color view of Pluto we received this morning. That amazing image was taken by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), but it was colorized with data from Ralph, another one of the spacecraft's cameras.

The new images shed a new colorful light on Pluto and Charon

Ralph, which can take images in visible and infrared light, has a wider field of view than LORRI, so New Horizons had to get close to Pluto before the camera could resolve any usable detail. These new images, which are about the resolution we saw LORRI capture last week, were taken at 3:38AM ET on July 13th. The team received them on the ground later in the day at 12:25PM ET, and their arrival prompted this cryptic tweet from New Horizons team scientist Kimberly Ennico Smith:

The image was first made by taking a picture with each of the the three color filters (red, blue, and green) found on the Ralph camera. Those images were then combined and the resulting colors were enhanced. This process lets the team get a more detailed view of surface features — the false colors help scientists understand the boundaries of different geological regions. Take the "heart" on Pluto, for example. In this morning's image it looks like one large homogenous region. In the exaggerated-color image, however, you can see a distinct split between the left and right sides. The false-color image suggests the two sides may be composed of different material.

The feature that stands out most in the new images of Charon is the polar dark spot. While this was visible in many of the black-and-white LORRI images, we can see here that it's tinted red, which hints at the presence of organic hydrocarbons. But how did those hydrocarbons get there? The leading theory from the New Horizons team is that material from Pluto escaped the dwarf planet and was sucked onto Charon’s pole. We’ll find out whether that idea is right in the coming weeks and months, as New Horizons sends more data back.