Join Donate

Emily LakdawallaJuly 21, 2015

New Horizons encounter plus one week: Weird and wonderful images from the Pluto system

So many new goodies from the Pluto system! My favorite thing today has been the release of two frames from the high-resolution mosaic over the southern end of Tombaugh regio. I have mosaicked them together and flipped them to place south up because the topography makes more sense that way.

The Mountains of Tombaugh Regio

NASA / JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

The Mountains of Tombaugh Regio
A mosaic of two images taken during New Horizons' flyby of Pluto covers the southernmost portion of Tombaugh regio, Pluto's "heart."

There are probably a lot of different kinds of materials in this photo. The mountains must be made of water ice, because (according to what John Spencer said at the press briefing last Wednesday) that's pretty much the only icy substance that would be strong enough to hold up kilometers-high mountains. But the plains below them could be made of a variety of materials. The dark stuff at lower right could be tholins. The image below, which was shared at Friday's press briefing, suggests that the smooth, hummocky, polygonal material at the left side of the above image could be carbon monoxide ice. There are darker patches within some of the polygons -- I wonder if that is a different ice? The bright material toward the center of the image, which has a more pitted appearance, might be a different substance again.

Peering closely at the “heart of Pluto”

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

Peering closely at the “heart of Pluto”
Peering closely at the “heart of Pluto,” in the western half of what mission scientists have informally named Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), New Horizons’ Ralph instrument revealed evidence of carbon monoxide ice. The contours indicate that the concentration of frozen carbon monoxide increases towards the center of the “bull’s eye.” These data were acquired by the spacecraft on July 14, 2015 and transmitted to Earth on July 16.

I'm not going to take more time to interpret this mosaic yet, because there's a lot more of it yet to come. One more frame from the mosaic has already been shown to the media; a portion of it is in this press-released photo, showing more polygonal, hummocky material. This morning, in New Horizons' last "early high priority" downlink, the mission should have received four more frames from the same mosaic. I very much hope to see those images in the press briefing scheduled for this Friday at 11:00 PT | 14:00 ET | 18:00 UT.

Images posted yesterday include global views of Pluto, Charon, Nix, and Hydra taken several hours before closest approach. To me, the collection begged to be posted as a scale montage, a family portrait:

Pluto system family portrait

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

Pluto system family portrait
The four largest bodies in the Pluto system, to scale: Pluto, Charon, Nix, and Hydra. The images were taken at a variety of times, from 16 to 10 hours before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto. They have been resized to a common scale (how they would appear if New Horizons were 500,000 kilometers away). Not pictured are Kerberos and Styx; images of those moons of comparable quality have not yet been returned by New Horizons.

After I made that, I remembered that distances within the Pluto system are quite small, in space terms, so it's possible to make the same montage with the distances between the worlds to scale, as well. Click through twice in order to enlarge it enough to see Nix and Hydra!

Pluto system family portrait (to scale with orbits)

NASA / JPL / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

Pluto system family portrait (to scale with orbits)
The four largest bodies in the Pluto system, to scale, and at correctly scaled distances from each other: Pluto, Charon, Nix, and Hydra. The images were taken at a variety of times, from 16 to 10 hours before New Horizons' closest approach to Pluto. They have been resized to a common scale (5 km/pixel). Not pictured are Kerberos and Styx; images of those moons of comparable quality have not yet been returned by New Horizons.

Despite what I was told Friday about there being no raw image releases for another week, these images have been appearing on the raw images website. I presume they are showing up by some manual process, since the raw images appear there after they have been the subject of a captioned image release. Captioned image releases seem to appear on NASA's website first, and then somewhat later on the APL website.

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

You are here:
Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla (2017, alternate)
Emily Lakdawalla

Senior Editor and Planetary Evangelist for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Emily Lakdawalla

Comments & Sharing
MER
Let's Change the World

Become a member of The Planetary Society and together we will create the future of space exploration.

Join Today

LightSail
LightSail

LightSail 2 will launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Be part of this epic point in space exploration history!

Donate