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Emily LakdawallaJuly 12, 2015

Zooming in to Pluto and Charon

In the span of a few days, Pluto and Charon have turned from spots into worlds. The latest images from New Horizons are showing Pluto and Charon to have unique faces, distinct from any other icy worlds in the solar system. Here are all the images of Pluto and Charon taken between July 7 and 11. I have stacked sets of images to do my best to bring out detail.

Zooming in to Pluto and Charon: July 8-11, 2015

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

Zooming in to Pluto and Charon: July 8-11, 2015

The Pluto images, in particular, hint at fascinating geology, with bright areas and dark areas and squiggles and patches.

Pluto: Signs of geology

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Pluto: Signs of geology
Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 5.4 million kilometers away. At this range, Pluto is beginning to reveal the first signs of discrete geologic features. This image views the side of Pluto that always faces its largest moon, Charon, and includes the so-called “tail” of the dark whale-shaped feature along its equator.

There is color information, but it's quite old; there has been no new Ralph MVIC data downlinked to Earth since a data set from June 25, which is very low resolution. There would have been higher-resolution color data by now if not for the spacecraft anomaly. But they will have good color maps on the ground eventually.

Pluto and Charon in color: LORRI + MVIC, July 8 & June 25, 2015

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Pluto and Charon in color: LORRI + MVIC, July 8 & June 25, 2015
A LORRI image from July 8 has been colorized with much lower-resolution MVIC data taken June 25 to make this color view. Pluto and Charon were 6 million kilometers away at the time. Most of the bright features around Pluto's edge are a result of image processing, but the bright sliver below the dark "whale," which is also visible in unprocessed images, is real.

The pictures are fascinating, but there's not quite enough detail to understand what is going on. Which makes it especially frustrating to know that this is the best view we will ever have of the hemisphere of Pluto that faces Charon.

New Horizons' last sunlit view of the Charon-facing hemisphere of Pluto

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

New Horizons' last sunlit view of the Charon-facing hemisphere of Pluto
New Horizons' last look at Pluto's Charon-facing hemisphere reveals intriguing geologic details that are of keen interest to mission scientists. This image, taken July 11, 2015, shows newly-resolved linear features above the equatorial region that intersect, suggestive of polygonal shapes. This image was captured when the spacecraft was 4 million kilometers from Pluto.

This is the best view because Pluto and Charon both rotate very slowly, once in 6.4 days. The photo above was taken about 3 days out from closest approach. Pluto will slowly rotate this hemisphere out of New Horizons' view, and will show us its opposite side on Tuesday, when New Horizons makes its closest approach.

I am monitoring the new images at the New Horizons raw image website regularly. That task has been made easier with some help from a reader who put together a tool that assembles LORRI image metadata into a CSV; I'm using that metadata to build these browse pages that include all images along with useful metadata. I hope some of you find that useful, too!

Here's a look at my Voyager image simulation of the New Horizons data set, with these first encounter-phase images dropped in. I look forward to filling this card out with real data over the coming days.

New Horizons Pluto flyby data set as of July 11, 2015

NASA / JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

New Horizons Pluto flyby data set as of July 11, 2015
Visit this page for the most recent version.

This afternoon, I will report for Pluto encounter duty at the media center at the Applied Physics Laboratory. There is much more excitement to come!

Read more: trans-neptunian objects, New Horizons, pretty pictures, Pluto, Charon, dwarf planets beyond Neptune

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Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
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