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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

New Horizons update: Resolving features on Charon and seeing in color

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

23-06-2015 11:02 CDT

Topics: trans-neptunian objects, New Horizons, pretty pictures, Pluto, amateur image processing, Charon, mission status, global views, dwarf planets beyond Neptune, many worlds, Pluto's small moons

Only about three weeks remain until the flyby — it's getting really close! I almost don't want the anticipation to end. We are now officially in Approach Phase 3, the final Approach phase. During this phase, covering the period from 21 to 1 days before closest approach, the range to Pluto will decrease from 26 to only 1.2 million kilometers. LORRI has a very narrow field of view, only 0.29 degrees; as of June 24, New Horizons will be close enough to Pluto that the orbit of Hydra (Pluto's outermost moon) no longer fits completely within a single LORRI field of view. Here's one of the best recent views of Pluto and Charon, processed by Björn Jónsson:

Raw image of Pluto and Charon, June 22, 2015

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Björn Jónsson

Raw image of Pluto and Charon, June 22, 2015
A stacked and sharpened version of four images captured on June 22 from a distance of 26.8 million kilometers. Björn Jónsson says about this image: "The dark feature very near or at Pluto's pole continues to be visible and I continue to suspect it to be a small, dark polar cap. The bright terrain continues to look mottled (which it didn't a few days ago in lower-res images) and these features are probably at least partially real. The dark spot near the right limb at ~(203,354) is definitely a real feature and the brighter spot next to it is probably real as well. Charon is now showing lots of interesting details. In particular the small, 'bright' spot near the center of Charon's disc is a real feature but its brightness relative to the darker terrain is exaggerated here."

Because of Pluto's slow, 6.4-day rotation, Approach Phase 3 includes the best, second-best, and third-best rotation coverage before closest approach, yielding the best global maps of Pluto and Charon. The fields and particles instruments, PEPSSI and SWAP, may detect pickup ions and the bow shock in the very last days of this phase. LEISA and Alice can begin looking for variability on the surface in infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. Later in this phase, LORRI and Ralph will search for clouds or hazes, and if there are visible clouds, they can track winds.

There was a brief mission update this morning on NASA TV. The spacecraft is healthy, and has successfully performed deep searches for previously undiscovered moons and dust hazards. Pluto's faintest moon, Styx, is now "a piece of cake" to detect with the LORRI camera, but no other moons beyond Charon, Kerberos, Hydra, Styx, and Nix have been found. This is very good news for spacecraft safety.

A programming note: I'm taking a pre-Pluto vacation starting tomorrow, until July 3. While I'm gone, the apparent size of Pluto will double! The following week, I'll be headed to Maryland to be on site at the Applied Physics Laboratory when all the most exciting data arrive on the ground.

But let's talk about what we can see now. The spacecraft is finally close enough that its Ralph Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera, or MVIC, is resolving Pluto and Charon as disks several pixels across. These early images still don't reveal details like LORRI's do; they're a promise of what's to come. They do show how Pluto has distinctly more color than Charon. Don't over-interpret the color, though; MVIC sees into the infrared, so it's not quite the same as what the human eye would see.

New Horizons begins to resolve Pluto and Charon in color


New Horizons begins to resolve Pluto and Charon in color
New Horizons' Ralph Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera, or MVIC, took the photos for this animation of Pluto and Charon from May 29 to June 3, approaching from 55 to 49 million kilometers' distance. Images taken through infrared, red, and blue filters were combined to make these images. MVIC has about 5 times lower resolution than the LORRI camera.

MVIC color data can be used to colorize higher-resolution LORRI images, and that's exactly what Ian Regan did here. At this point, it's not really worth trying to figure out what all the spots on Pluto are; some of them are surely just image processing artifacts. Wait just a couple weeks and we'll find out what the face of Pluto really looks like! For today, just enjoy the pretty view.

Pluto and Charon in color: LORRI + MVIC, June 21, 2015

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Ian Regan

Pluto and Charon in color: LORRI + MVIC, June 21, 2015
A lower-resolution MVIC color image from May was used to colorize a higher-resolution LORRI image to make this view of Pluto and Charon in color.

Meanwhile, although spottier Pluto gets all the press, Charon is beginning to show off surface features, too.

New Horizons spies features on Charon, June 18, 2015


New Horizons spies features on Charon, June 18, 2015
At a distance of 31 million kilometers, New Horizons' LORRI camera began to discern surface features on Charon, including a "dark pole."

So excited!!

See other posts from June 2015


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


Bob Ware: 06/23/2015 04:13 CDT

Finally close enough to start losing sleep due to the excitement!!! To me this is like APOLLO 8!

sepiae: 06/24/2015 04:37 CDT

This is like a super-maximized version of finding out who the 3rd Man is... It's extremely thrilling, every new image, ever closer up, literally sends shivers running up and down my spine...

sepiae: 06/24/2015 05:21 CDT

...oh, and thank you for planting the image of space probes crashing into moons nobody knew of in my head... :D

sepiae: 06/24/2015 05:30 CDT

3rd time today of me staring at the colored June 21 image... It's positively haunting... thanks :)

Sebastian: 06/24/2015 09:50 CDT

Back in 2006 I was 14 years old. I wondered how my life and the world would look like when we finally see this unknown and wondrous world. This mission inspired me to choose to study physics and today I work at the IAEA after discovering my love for nuclear energy and it's applications. Thank you planetary society for helping to inspire young people and grown ups alike.

Arnold Evans: 06/24/2015 09:23 CDT

I am intrigued by the colorized and deconvoluted picture, but I do worry that a lot of what we're seeing in such pictures is just artifacts of the deconvolution process. Has anyone done any animation of just the raw images? (I may if I have time tonight)

Ray Mina: 06/25/2015 08:02 CDT

Can't wait to see what we have wanted to see since we discovered a dwarf planet! Have a good vacations Miss Lakdawalla :)

Ichiban: 06/26/2015 02:41 CDT

I know the resolutions not very good, but it looks as if Pluto may have an equatorial ridge, like the one on Iepetus.

Frankypouh: 06/26/2015 08:40 CDT

Is the gravitational center inside Pluto radi or very close ( don't know if the viewpoint tricking me here ! )? Can his position influence at some point and give interesting features on Pluto's surface ? I hurry to see that !! Christmas is coming!!!

Rob: 06/28/2015 08:47 CDT

Emily, it's bad practice to use acronyms like LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) without defining them first. You can't assume your audience knows them. Please don't continue to do this in future articles. Otherwise, thanks for the great updates!

Alfred McEwen: 06/28/2015 10:53 CDT

Does the Iapetus-like ridge in the 2015-06-22 00:47:00 LORRI image (noted by commenter Ichiban) follow the equator? A frozen-in bulge from tidal despinning, one hypothesis for Iapetus, could work for Pluto-Charon.

Ichiban: 06/29/2015 02:53 CDT

If what I read on another site is correct. The dark circular patch on the left is believed to be the north polar cap. The northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. So what appears to be a ridge should be around the equator. Or, it could be a trick or light and shadow and low resolution. Just have to wait and see.

The Serendipitous Cacophonies: 06/29/2015 03:23 CDT

Hi, I compiled 169 zoomed-in Pluto and Charon images from the freely accessible New Horizons data. They're here: I also combined those images into a single image with Pluto at the center, in an attempt to find possible objects around Pluto. Images were resampled using a (very rough) estimate of Pluto's size derived from the images themselves, but what is interesting is that some trails appear, indicating possible orbiting objects... or are they just background stars or processing artefacts? I don't know. I am a newbie in astronomy image processing, but the image is here, in case it may interest you:

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