NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Southwest Research Institute just released the first new images of Pluto since the New Horizons spacecraft's historic flyby of Pluto almost two months ago.
Perhaps the most striking image of the bunch is the one you see above. It's a mosaic that simulates what it would look like if you were about 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equator. In the picture you can see the diversity of Pluto's surface: the dark and crater-filled region informally called "Cthulhu" by the New Horizons team, the cracked and icy plains referred to as the Sputnik Planum, and even some of Pluto's mountains.
These images, like the others released today, were taken by New Horizons' LORRI camera. It's the same black-and-white camera that captured all those wonderful images as New Horizons approached Pluto, as well as this now-famous portrait of the dwarf planet. While LORRI captures images in black and white, those same images are typically colorized using data from another camera on the spacecraft called RALPH, so it's likely that we'll see today's images re-released as color versions sometime in the near future.
We've already learned a lot about Pluto, even though New Horizons spent less than a day observing the dwarf planet. NASA was finally able to nail down Pluto's size (1,473 miles in diameter), as well as measure its expansive (and rapidly declining) atmosphere.
But there's still a lot more to learn, too. An overwhelming majority of the science data and images — something like 95 percent — is still on the spacecraft. The New Horizons team just began downlinking everything this month, but it will take more than a year to complete that task because the spacecraft can only transfer the data at a rate of 1 to 4 kilobytes per second.
In the meantime, the New Horizons team will continue to release images as they are downloaded and processed. The spacecraft, on the other hand, has a new target in its sights: a small object about one billion miles away from Pluto in the Kuiper Belt known as 2014 MU69. However, final approval (and funding) is still needed before the New Horizons team can steer the spacecraft toward — and eventually study — 2014 MU69.
- This mosaic of high-resolution images shows the Sputnik Planum — the icy plains that make up half of the heart-shaped section of Pluto’s surface. The smallest features in the image are about 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size, and the entire image shows about 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) of Pluto’s surface. The image was taken by the LORRI imager aboard New Horizons on July 14th, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). The insets can be seen in greater detail in the next two images below.
- This image offers a more detailed look at the edge of Pluto’s icy Sputnik Planum. The cracks you see in the picture are evidence of recent geologic activity, and suggest that Pluto is a much more dynamic planetary body than once thought.
- This picture, which is another inset from above, shows how diverse Pluto’s landscape is. Although the picture only shows about 220 miles worth of the surface, you can see so much: the dwarf planet’s icy plains sit next to giant, dark impact craters, as well as some of Pluto’s mountains next to what look like dunes.
- In this image, the New Horizons team cranked the brightness to reveal even more detail at the edges of the now-famous face of Pluto.
- One of the last images originally released around the flyby event was taken after New Horizons passed Pluto. Looking back at the dwarf planet as it was back-lit by the sun, the spacecraft was able to take a direct image of Pluto’s atmosphere. Here we see a much higher-resolution version, as well as another, more off-centered look on the right. The image on the right also has been processed to show the different layers of haze in Pluto’s atmosphere.