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NASA unveils closer images of Pluto's weirdly shaped moons Nix and Hydra

NASA

NASA released even closer shots of Pluto's smaller moons Nix and Hydra today, showcasing the weird shapes of these tiny space rocks. An enhanced-color image of Nix makes the moon look something like a pinkish jelly bean, while the image of Hydra shows a lopsided moon with various curves and dips. These moons stand in stark contrast to the mostly spherical moons that dominate our Solar System.

The photographs were both taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft on July 14th with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), the probe's high-resolution imaging instrument. New Horizons snapped the image of Nix when it was 102,000 miles away from the moon and captured Hydra when it was 143,000 miles away. Despite their blurriness, the photos are a big step up from the first heavily pixelated images we got of Nix and Hydra.

"It's a surreal experience to see [Hydra] become an actual place."

"Before last week, Hydra was just a faint point of light, so it's a surreal experience to see it become an actual place, as we see its shape and spot recognizable features on its surface for the first time," said NASA mission science collaborator Ted Stryk of Roane State Community College.

NASA researchers estimate that Nix is 26 miles long and 22 miles wide. In reality the moon is mostly a gray color, but the exaggerated tint highlights a reddish region on Nix's surface. NASA thinks this area is probably a crater. Additional data already gathered by New Horizons will help NASA researchers further characterize this area, but that information has not been downlinked to Earth yet.

The image of Hydra brings into focus its size and awkward shape, which NASA likens to the outline of Michigan (though I actually see another famous dog). The New Horizons team also spots at least two large craters on Hydra's surface, and the moon's shifts in darkness from top to bottom suggest that its surface is made of different materials. NASA estimates that Hydra is similar in size to Nix, measuring 34 miles long and 25 miles wide.

We've only known about the existence of Nix and Hydra for a short time. The two moons were first discovered in 2005 in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Pluto has five moons totals, which are believed to have chaotic orbits around the dwarf planet and its largest moon Charon. We'll get better images of Pluto's other two moons — Styx and Kerberos — sometime in October.

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