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New Horizons sees surface features on Pluto, begins raw image release

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

29-04-2015 20:06 CDT

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

Today the New Horizons team released a new animation of images taken on approach to Pluto. The animation clearly shows how Pluto wobbles around the Pluto-Charon barycenter. It also shows something more exciting to the scientists: variations in brightness across the surface of Pluto.

New Horizons sees surface features on Pluto for the first time

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

New Horizons sees surface features on Pluto for the first time
This animation contains 13 images taken over the course of one Pluto rotation between April 12 and April 18, 2015. During this period, New Horizons was roughly 110 million kilometers from Pluto. Stacking and deconvolution has been used to increase the resolution of the images over the raw data, revealing Pluto's spotty surface. The brightness variations make Pluto appear lumpy, but it is actually round.

We knew those variations existed, but they didn't expect to see them so early in New Horizons' approach, according to project scientist Hal Weaver. He said at a press briefing today that they didn't expect to see the surface variations for another month. They were made visible thanks to a process of stacking multiple photos taken one after another, and deconvolving the result. Hal said that the astronomy community's deconvolution algorithms were developed after Hubble was launched with its initially blurry vision -- so the Hubble problem has had a silver lining for the New Horizons mission!

The most common question I've been asked about this image today is: Is Pluto lumpy? The answer is no; Pluto is round. It appears lumpy because of those very brightness variations that the scientists are so excited about. Wherever a bright spot is near the edge of the disk, it looks like an upward lump; wherever a dark spot is near the edge, it looks like a downward lump. The variations in surface brightness are probably going to make it very hard to figure out what kind of topography Pluto actually has until we're quite close to it. In the meantime, they make animations of Pluto very interesting!

The other big announcement today is that the New Horizons team has begun sharing their raw images on the Web! Unlike with the Jupiter flyby, where they shared lossless PNG-formatted data, they are putting the Pluto images out in lossy JPEG format, which reduces their quality. While of course I'd love to have PNGs, lossy JPEG format is a tradeoff I'm certainly willing to accept in exchange for rapid access to images that help me to follow the mission! They say that images will generally appear on the raw images website within 48 hours of their receipt.

I've spent some time on the raw images website this afternoon, and thought I'd give you a tour of the kinds of images you'll find there.

First of all, I can decode the filenames for you. The filename convention is:

lor_NNNNNNNNNN_MMMMM_sci_P.jpg

Where

  • "lor" tells you that it's a LORRI image
  • NNNNNNNNNN is the mission elapsed time in seconds
  • MMMMM is an "ApID", a hexadecimal code that contains information about the observation (see table below)
  • "sci" tells you that the data has been lightly processed from the raw engineering data (it is "Level 2" rather than "Level 1" data)
  • P is the version number (there may be multiple versions of images; it looks like the raw page links only to the latest-version one for each observation)

Here is a lookup table for the ApIDs:

APIDC&DH sidebinning modecompression type
0x630 1 1x1 lossless
0x631 1 1x1 packetized
0x632 1 1x1 lossy
0x633 1 4x4 lossless
0x634 1 4x4 packetized
0x635 1 4x4 lossy
0x636 2 1x1 lossless
0x637 2 1x1 packetized
0x638 2 1x1 lossy
0x639 2 4x4 lossless
0x63A 2 4x4 packetized
0x63B 2 4x4 lossy


So far, all of the available data appears to have ApIDs of 0x630 or 0x633. That tells you that only the Side 1 computer has been used (presumably Side 2 will only get used if something bad happens). It also tells you that all these images have been transmitted to Earth losslessly. That will continue to be true for all of these early images because they are being used for optical navigation and the New Horizons navigators need every scrap of precision they can eke out of the data. We'll begin seeing lossy data closer to encounter. The main difference between 0x630 data and 0x633 data is that the 0x633 images have been binned 4x4 before transmission to Earth. That means that the images are only 256 pixels square. As I explained in an earlier blog post, this binning is necessary to allow LORRI to be able to take the long exposures needed pick out the faint light from Pluto's smaller moons Nix and Hydra from very far away without smearing the images.

Here's an example 0x630 image. These images are usually taken with relatively short exposures, so you can pretty much only see Pluto and Charon. Few or no background stars are visible. This image had an exposure time of 0.1 second.

Raw New Horizons LORRI image: 0x630, 1x1 binned, losslessly transmitted

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Raw New Horizons LORRI image: 0x630, 1x1 binned, losslessly transmitted
Keep in mind that although the images were transmitted to Earth losslessly, they have been converted to JPEG format before being posted on the Web, so the images you can download rapidly are lossy-compressed. Lossless data will be available through the Small Bodies Node of the Planetary Data System 9 to 12 months after receipt from the spacecraft.

Here's an example 0x633 image. These are taken with much, much longer exposures in order to reveal the faint moons. Lots of background stars are visible; astrometry.net readily identifies the star field. (Thanks to some friends on Twitter for reminding me about astrometry.net!) The long exposures cause pixel bleeding from the relatively bright Pluto and Charon, which appear as jagged spears of white pixels trailing to the right. This one is a 10-second exposure.

Raw New Horizons LORRI image: 0x633, 4x4 binned, losslessly transmitted

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Raw New Horizons LORRI image: 0x633, 4x4 binned, losslessly transmitted

I downloaded a bunch of these pictures and tried stacking them to reduce artifacts and aligning them to reduce the visual confusion of dancing stars in the hopes that I could spot Nix and Hydra, but I don't know that it was effective:

There are a few weird-looking photos on the raw images page. Some of them, like this one, are very light-colored with a vertical stripe down the center. If you look within the vertical stripe, you'll see Pluto and Charon. The website helpfully explains what is going on in these images:

Sometimes only partial images are downlinked in order to reduce downlink data volume using a process called "windowing". The region of interest, also called the "window", is captured from the LORRI detector and the rest of the image is not even downlinked. However, the subsequent ground processing populates the missing regions with zeroes and then subtracts the bias level, which produces negative numbers in the final calibrated image. This combination of negative numbers in the "Blank Region" and "Real Data" in the windowed region, and the automatic intensity scaling used to produce the JPEG image (which ranges from the minimum to maximum values in the image), produces a banded structure in the JPEGs. A similar effect also applies to images for which data have been "lost" (e.g., data dropouts at the Deep Space Network).

A few images, like this one, are very light-colored with scattered darker stripes running left-to-right. The website explains:

Sometimes data are lost during the transfer from the New Horizons spacecraft to the Mission Operations Center at APL (e.g., bad weather at one of the DSN sites can sometimes cause data dropouts). When these dropouts occur, the subsequent processing of the images is affected and some of the missing pixels are assigned incorrect intensity values. Furthermore, these incorrect intensity values can adversely affect the automatic scaling used to produce these figures, with most of the field appearing to be white and the missing pixels set to black. If an image "corrupted" in this way is considered "critical", the Mission Operations Center may request a re-transmission of the data from the spacecraft. But if the loss of the image doesn't significantly impact ongoing operations or science analysis, we will not try to re-transmit the image from the spacecraft.

The following table shows when you can expect New Horizons to be taking optical navigation images like the ones available on the raw images website so far. I posted this once before; thanks very much to Kim Ennico for getting this information to me! There are two periods during Pluto approach when New Horizons is not taking new images, but is instead focusing on transmitting data to Earth. We're in the middle of the first one of those (April 19 to May 8), and there will be another gap May 15-27. But those gaps are when the lion's share of the data arrives on Earth. So stay tuned to the raw images website for more and more data!

Date/time
(UTC)
Range
(Mkm)
Targets4x4
binned?
Resolution
(km/pix)
2015 Jan 25 02:01 203 Pluto and Charon   1015
2015 Jan 25 02:06 203 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 4059
2015 Jan 25 14:01 202 Pluto and Charon   1012
2015 Jan 26 01:57 202 Pluto and Charon   1009
2015 Jan 26 13:57 201 Pluto and Charon   1006
2015 Jan 27 01:53 201 Pluto and Charon   1003
2015 Jan 27 01:58 201 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 4012
2015 Jan 27 13:53 200 Pluto and Charon   1000
2015 Jan 28 01:49 199 Pluto and Charon   997
2015 Jan 28 13:49 199 Pluto and Charon   994
2015 Jan 29 01:45 198 Pluto and Charon   991
2015 Jan 29 13:45 198 Pluto and Charon   988
2015 Jan 30 01:41 197 Pluto and Charon   985
2015 Jan 30 01:49 197 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3941
2015 Jan 30 13:41 196 Pluto and Charon   982
2015 Jan 31 01:37 196 Pluto and Charon   979
2015 Jan 31 01:42 196 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3917
2015 Jan 31 13:37 195 Pluto and Charon   976
2015 Feb 01 01:33 195 Pluto and Charon   973
2015 Feb 02 01:25 193 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3869
2015 Feb 04 01:17 191 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3822
2015 Feb 06 01:09 189 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3774
2015 Feb 08 15:00 186 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3713
2015 Feb 10 18:00 183 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3662
2015 Feb 12 00:45 182 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3632
2015 Feb 15 01:37 178 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3560
2015 Feb 16 20:00 176 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3517
2015 Feb 18 20:00 173 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3470
2015 Feb 20 00:13 172 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3442
2015 Feb 22 20:00 169 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3374
2015 Feb 23 20:00 168 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3351
2015 Feb 26 08:00 165 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3291
2015 Feb 27 23:41 163 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3252
2015 Mar 01 23:33 160 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3204
2015 Mar 03 12:00 158 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3168
2015 Mar 05 00:30 157 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 3132
2015 Apr 05 07:48 119 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2386
2015 Apr 07 05:44 117 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2340
2015 Apr 08 06:00 116 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2316
2015 Apr 11 18:00 112 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2233
2015 Apr 12 03:47 111 Pluto and Charon   556
2015 Apr 12 03:55 111 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2223
2015 Apr 12 21:45 110 Pluto and Charon   551
2015 Apr 13 04:16 110 Pluto and Charon   550
2015 Apr 13 22:02 109 Pluto and Charon   545
2015 Apr 14 09:32 108 Pluto and Charon   542
2015 Apr 14 21:37 108 Pluto and Charon   539
2015 Apr 15 04:08 108 Pluto and Charon   538
2015 Apr 15 04:16 108 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2151
2015 Apr 15 21:54 107 Pluto and Charon   533
2015 Apr 16 09:24 106 Pluto and Charon   531
2015 Apr 16 21:29 106 Pluto and Charon   528
2015 Apr 17 04:00 105 Pluto and Charon   526
2015 Apr 17 21:46 104 Pluto and Charon   522
2015 Apr 17 21:48 104 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2086
2015 Apr 18 09:16 104 Pluto and Charon   519
2015 Apr 18 21:21 103 Pluto and Charon   516
2015 Apr 19 03:52 103 Pluto and Charon   514
2015 Apr 19 04:00 103 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 2056
2015 Apr 21 14:00 100 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1999
2015 Apr 22 09:20 99.0 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1980
2015 Apr 25 02:33 95.7 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1915
2015 Apr 27 02:25 93.4 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1867
2015 Apr 29 02:17 91.0 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1820
2015 May 01 02:09 88.6 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1772
2015 May 02 14:00 86.8 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1737
2015 May 05 01:53 83.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1677
2015 May 06 21:00 81.7 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1634
2015 May 09 03:36 79.0 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1580
2015 May 11 01:00 76.8 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1535
2015 May 13 03:20 74.3 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1485
2015 May 14 02:00 73.1 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1463
2015 May 28 06:00 56.3 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   281
2015 May 28 09:45 56.1 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1122
2015 May 29 01:35 55.3 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   276
2015 May 29 01:45 55.3 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1106
2015 May 30 06:00 53.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   269
2015 May 30 06:00 53.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1078
2015 May 31 01:10 52.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   265
2015 May 31 01:10 52.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1059
2015 Jun 01 05:45 51.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   258
2015 Jun 01 05:45 51.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1030
2015 Jun 02 01:10 50.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   253
2015 Jun 02 01:10 50.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 1011
2015 Jun 03 05:45 49.2 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   983
2015 Jun 03 05:00 49.1 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 246
2015 Jun 03 18:50 48.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   242
2015 Jun 03 18:50 48.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 970
2015 Jun 05 05:50 46.7 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   234
2015 Jun 05 05:50 46.7 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 935
2015 Jun 06 01:15 45.8 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   229
2015 Jun 06 01:15 45.8 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 916
2015 Jun 07 05:15 44.4 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   222
2015 Jun 07 05:15 44.4 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 888
2015 Jun 08 01:10 43.4 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   217
2015 Jun 08 01:10 43.4 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 868
2015 Jun 09 05:00 42.0 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   210
2015 Jun 09 05:00 42.0 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 840
2015 Jun 10 01:00 41.0 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   205
2015 Jun 10 01:00 41.0 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 821
2015 Jun 11 05:00 39.6 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   198
2015 Jun 11 05:00 39.6 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 793
2015 Jun 12 01:00 38.6 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   193
2015 Jun 12 01:00 38.6 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 773
2015 Jun 13 05:00 37.3 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   186
2015 Jun 13 05:00 37.3 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 745
2015 Jun 13 16:20 36.7 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   183
2015 Jun 13 16:20 36.7 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 734
2015 Jun 15 05:29 34.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   174
2015 Jun 15 05:29 34.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 697
2015 Jun 16 00:59 33.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   169
2015 Jun 16 00:59 33.9 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 678
2015 Jun 17 05:13 32.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   162
2015 Jun 17 05:13 32.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 650
2015 Jun 18 00:36 31.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra   158
2015 Jun 18 00:36 31.5 Pluto, Charon, Nix & Hydra yes 630
2015 Jun 19 05:05 30.1 Hydra, Image Pluto & Charon   151
2015 Jun 19 05:05 30.1 Hydra, Image Nix yes 601
2015 Jun 20 00:28 29.1 Pluto & Charon, Image Hydra   146
2015 Jun 20 00:28 29.1 Hydra, Image Nix yes 582
2015 Jun 21 04:57 27.7 Hydra, Image Pluto & Charon   139
2015 Jun 21 04:57 27.7 Hydra, Image Nix yes 554
2015 Jun 22 00:20 26.8 Pluto & Charon, Image Hydra   134
2015 Jun 22 00:20 26.7 Hydra, Image Nix yes 535
2015 Jun 23 04:49 25.4 Hydra, Image Pluto & Charon   127
2015 Jun 23 04:49 25.3 Hydra, Image Nix yes 507
2015 Jun 23 23:34 24.4 Pluto & Charon   122
2015 Jun 23 23:40 24.4 Hydra   122
2015 Jun 25 05:37 22.9 Hydra   115
2015 Jun 25 05:43 22.9 Pluto & Charon   115
2015 Jun 25 23:23 22.1 Pluto & Charon   110
2015 Jun 25 23:29 22.0 Hydra   110
2015 Jun 27 05:32 20.6 Hydra   103
2015 Jun 27 05:38 20.6 Pluto & Charon   103
2015 Jun 27 23:14 19.7 Pluto & Charon   98.4
2015 Jun 27 23:20 19.7 Hydra   98.4
2015 Jun 29 04:56 18.2 Hydra   91.1
2015 Jun 29 05:02 18.2 Pluto & Charon   91.0
2015 Jun 29 23:04 17.3 Pluto & Charon   86.5
2015 Jun 29 23:10 17.3 Hydra   86.6
2015 Jul 01 04:11 15.9 Hydra   79.5
2015 Jul 01 04:17 15.9 Pluto & Charon   79.3
2015 Jul 01 22:47 15.0 Nix   74.9
2015 Jul 01 22:53 14.9 Pluto & Charon   74.7
2015 Jul 01 22:59 15.0 Hydra   74.8
2015 Jul 03 04:38 13.5 Hydra   67.5
2015 Jul 03 04:45 13.5 Pluto & Charon   67.3
2015 Jul 03 22:15 12.6 Nix   63.0
2015 Jul 03 23:25 12.5 Pluto & Charon   62.6
2015 Jul 03 23:30 12.6 Hydra   62.8
2015 Jul 05 03:04 11.2 Nix   55.8
2015 Jul 05 04:33 11.1 Hydra   55.6
2015 Jul 05 04:37 11.1 Pluto & Charon   55.4
2015 Jul 05 22:27 10.2 Pluto & Charon   50.9
2015 Jul 05 22:32 10.2 Hydra   51.2
2015 Jul 06 08:36 9.69 Nix   48.4
2015 Jul 07 04:18 8.70 Nix   43.5
2015 Jul 07 04:28 8.75 Hydra   43.7
2015 Jul 07 04:33 8.69 Pluto & Charon   43.5
2015 Jul 07 22:36 7.85 Hydra   39.2
2015 Jul 07 22:41 7.79 Pluto   39.0
2015 Jul 07 22:46 7.80 Charon   39.0
2015 Jul 09 04:13 6.37 Hydra   31.9
2015 Jul 09 04:18 6.33 Pluto   31.6
2015 Jul 09 04:23 6.32 Charon   31.6
2015 Jul 09 22:20 5.41 Nix   27.0
2015 Jul 09 22:27 5.47 Hydra   27.3
2015 Jul 09 22:32 5.42 Pluto   27.1
2015 Jul 09 22:37 5.41 Charon   27.0
2015 Jul 11 02:46 3.99 Nix   19.9
2015 Jul 11 04:01 3.99 Hydra   20.0
2015 Jul 11 04:05 3.96 Pluto   19.8
2015 Jul 11 04:10 3.94 Charon   19.7
2015 Jul 11 22:22 3.05 Pluto   15.2
2015 Jul 11 22:28 3.04 Charon   15.2
2015 Jul 12 08:45 2.53 Pluto   12.7
2015 Jul 12 08:50 2.53 Charon   12.6
 
See other posts from April 2015

 

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

Comments:

Jean-Luc: 04/30/2015 05:01 CDT

Hello, thank you very much for these informations about images ! I have a question : the last one show an ice cap obn "a pole". Which pole ? North or south ?

Gregk: 04/30/2015 01:45 CDT

New Horizons is truly an exercise in patience. Only a couple more months.

rickray777: 04/30/2015 06:15 CDT

Disturbing thought of the year: an entire lifetime's dream, and over nine years' travel smashed! -- by an unforeseen opaque cloud layer (however multicolored!) covering Pluto's entire surface (as with Venus and Titan). But with these new images coming in, I AM starting to realize: there may be hope yet! If we DO see any surface features, well then that in itself would be a cause for celebration!

Ary: 04/30/2015 09:15 CDT

It's been about 2 years since your blog post on imaging pluto and i recall you said that it would only be about 3 pixels wide on hubble and you even did a homework question asking when would we need to be closest to get great images. And i think the question has finally been answered and proven. They arent super detailed but i am more than excited that is has finally happened. Thanks for the post!

Caetano Julio: 04/30/2015 11:43 CDT

I found Nix ad hydra: http://i.imgur.com/aR0e0Nt.gif

Kastior: 05/02/2015 09:34 CDT

Respect Caetano's comment. I attempt to improve little bit his animation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKca2SiXrZQ

sepiae: 05/04/2015 06:00 CDT

Excellent work,thank you! And the result is just mesmerizing... I know it'll take a bit till the next better view, and yet, unreasonably, I catch myself every day scanning for this next view. And I'm having the most shameless anthropomorphic feelings for those fellas out there enabling us to look at all these far away objects... :)

rickray777: 05/07/2015 07:32 CDT

Jean-Luc: I have looked it up elsewhere; it is the South polar cap that we are seeing -- IF, of course, that is indeed the surface that we are viewing (rather than multicolored clouds). Trouble is: I remember all too well the Titan thing back in 1980! Might Pluto turn out to be the same thing? Only time will tell.

Jean-Luc: 05/09/2015 02:00 CDT

Thank you Rickray! So the clouds may be surprising...

FrankD627 : 05/12/2015 11:44 CDT

Hello Emily! Can you please tell me if there are any plans afoot to take any images of Nix & Hydra during our flyby and perhaps get some materials analysis as well? Thanks for all of your good work with the images!

Mr. Collins: 05/20/2015 06:19 CDT

Thanks for the info, I can not wait for the up close pictures.

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