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New Horizons returns first images from mission's Pluto approach phase

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

04-02-2015 15:14 CST

Topics: trans-neptunian objects, New Horizons, pretty pictures, Pluto, Charon, mission status, dwarf planets beyond Neptune, Pluto's small moons

Here they are, the first images of Pluto from the encounter phase of the New Horizons mission. We're on the home stretch!

New Horizons' Pluto approach mission phase begins

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

New Horizons' Pluto approach mission phase begins
The two images in this animation were taken on January 25 and 27, 2015. They were the first acquired during the spacecraft's 2015 approach to the Pluto system. New Horizons was about 203 million kilometers from Pluto when the frames to make the first image were taken; about 2.5 million kilometers closer for the second set.

The caption released with this image also says "The image exposure time was only a tenth of a second, which is too short to detect Pluto's smaller moons. LORRI will also be taking images with longer exposure times (10 seconds) that should reveal both Nix and Hydra." Those images will have four times lower resolution than the one above, for reasons I explained in my blog post about the Pluto optical navigation campaign.

These images are simultaneously exciting and frustrating. Exciting, because: Pluto!! But frustrating, because they still don't show any details on the surface that I as a geologist can get excited about. And New Horizons won't be able to get us that level of detail until July. Thank goodness for Dawn at Ceres, which is slaking my thirst for images of new worlds. (I expect to see new, best-ever images of Ceres any day now.)

Nevertheless: Pluto!! And Charon!!!

Speaking of July, many people who are beginning to plan their summer vacations have asked me what to plan for regarding New Horizons' Pluto encounter. I have a very long and detailed post or two in the works about that, but in the meantime, here are a few bullet points to help you make plans. Times of day refer to the United States; I am being deliberately vague about most of the times here and will give more detail later.

  • We expect a really great photo of Pluto to hit the ground very late in the evening Monday, July 13.
  • On Tuesday, July 14, we will get no images. We will hear a beep from the spacecraft if it survived close approach at about 6pm PDT / 9pm EDT / 1am UT.
  • Wednesday, July 15 should see two downlinks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with some really great photos -- Pluto and Charon both filling the frame, the best picture of Nix, and a couple of high-res photos of sections of Pluto.
  • In general, the New Horizons team has planned carefully to receive the very most photogenic images first, with images trickling in over the next couple of days so that Sunday (July 19) papers and news shows will have great material for big features including global views of all the objects and a few selected high-res detail photos of Pluto and Charon.

Much more detail to come; stay tuned!

 
See other posts from February 2015

 

Or read more blog entries about: trans-neptunian objects, New Horizons, pretty pictures, Pluto, Charon, mission status, dwarf planets beyond Neptune, Pluto's small moons

Comments:

Joe Renzullo: 02/04/2015 04:50 CST

I'm so excited for these images to come down! Exploring this new world from afar is such a tantalizing prospect. Thank you for your coverage of the mission so far - looking forward to preliminary analyses as data becomes available.

Dave Hall: 02/04/2015 05:19 CST

Happy Birthday, Clyde Tombaugh!

Bob Ware: 02/04/2015 08:22 CST

Wow! We're finally here! Oh now this you won't believe! I was just about to load the security characters.... and those formed a great assessment of the New Horizons status of the mission now being underway! A good omen for sure!

lodaya: 02/05/2015 12:20 CST

Just to add from the Reddit: NH expects to be better than Hubble resolution in May.

Mark Hardaker: 02/05/2015 05:08 CST

As a child, I' m sure you can remember that long one-month build-up to the arrival of Santa Claus with your presents on Christmas morning. By Xmas Eve, the tension was almost unbearable. This year, 2015, is proving to be much MUCH worse than Xmas for us planetary freaks! First of all, the build up has been going on for years, and then to get these tantalising glimpses of the glories yet to come only seems to make it worse! At least with Santa we never saw him coming; with NH and Dawn, we are seeing a little bit more even day. I'm seriously tempted to go offline until March (for Dawn) and July for NH!!

GAbramson: 02/05/2015 07:07 CST

And crescent! A crecent of Pluto!

Gregk: 02/05/2015 08:27 CST

It doesn't look like much, but the technical achievement to make it this far is just incredible. Glad everything seems to be working great. Also, looks like were about to cross the 200 million km mark.

Fer: 02/05/2015 09:29 CST

I love how fast the NASA share their pictures and other information. The difference with the image policy of ESA is abysmal... Again, thank you very much NASA and New Horizons Team! (Mr. Sierks, of Max Planck Institute in Germany, if you can read me, you should learn a lot from NASA and New Horizons Team. Greetings from Europe (and congratulations, mates). http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-30859411

RefractorPhill: 02/07/2015 11:10 CST

Pluto tour starts soon! Did NASA already identify the three TNOs that New Horizons might "visit" after its Pluto-Charon flyby ?

Steve: 02/17/2015 10:15 CST

Why didnt they put a gold record on the New Horizons spaceships like they did on Voyager? Seems odd we wouldn't want to take advantage of any spaceship that would eventually leave our solar system.

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