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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Lose yourself in this high-resolution portrait of Pluto

Posted By Emily Lakdawalla

24-09-2015 16:45 CDT

Topics: trans-neptunian objects, New Horizons, pretty pictures, Pluto, dwarf planets beyond Neptune

Enlarge this image to its full 8000-pixel-square glory and lose yourself in it. But be careful of your data plan; the full-resolution PNG is 69 MB. (If that gives you pause, here's a JPEG version of the thing at half resolution, a svelte 2 MB.)

High-resolution enhanced-color global MVIC portrait of Pluto


High-resolution enhanced-color global MVIC portrait of Pluto
This beautiful high-resolution image of Pluto is from a single observation with the MVIC imager on the Ralph instrument. It is an enhanced-color view made of three images captured through infrared, red, and blue filters. The three individual images were denoised, deconvolved, and enlarged by a factor of 2 before being combined into this stunning portrait.

This portrait was made from a single MVIC observation, three swaths cut across Pluto with the blue-, red-, and infrared-filter detectors. I wrote last week about how MVIC works to take these images. Because I'd written that article, I realized that, at 8000 pixels square, this portrait was too big to be a single MVIC observation, unless it had been resized. So I asked New Horizons team member Alex Parker about the processing that he did to make it.

Alex confirmed that the image had been upsampled (enlarged) by a factor of 2 as a part of his deconvolution process. I'm oversimplifying here, but deconvolution is a step in image processing where you account for the fact that your detector has an inherent blur. Before you send a scientific camera to space, you perform a lot of tests on it to understand very precisely the geometry of that blur. With an excellent model of its geometry, you can take the blur out, sharpening the images in a way that is very specific to your precise understanding of your scientific camera. Alex said that each image (blue, red, and infrared) was denoised and deconvolved on its own, and then the three images combined into the color view. That was a major step:

Since nobody knows every subtletly of this image better than Alex, I think he's the best person to take you on a tour of it:

In the future, it should theoretically be possible to employ all three images simultaneously in the deconvolution process, and that might yield even more detail. But the New Horizons team is drowning in pixels at the moment; that's the kind of labor-intensive operation that you do when you're not getting any more data down from your spacecraft and need to wring every last bit of science out of the pixels that you have.

We should get even more pixels tomorrow, when New Horizons releases more raw data. Stay tuned!

See other posts from September 2015


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


Vance: 09/24/2015 06:00 CDT

Just wow! This has to be one of the most spectacular images ever obtained thus far in planetary exploration. And we've still got a year of data to download?

Brad: 09/24/2015 06:15 CDT

Hi Emily - the jpeg link seems broken. Adding the .jpg extension fixed it for me.

Tanya : 09/24/2015 11:05 CDT

Thanks for the heads up on the broken link Brad—I've fixed that now! ~Tanya (Emily's web intern)

Josh: 09/25/2015 05:31 CDT

Fantastic pics! These helped me confirm my suspicions that the red regions are the oldest on Pluto...they have many large craters, which are mostly lacking in other regions. Pluto's southern hemisphere, towards the east (?) near the terminator, has a bizzare terrain that looks vaguely like wet dog fur :) It almost looks like it formed by fluid errosion, which would seem to be impossible on Pluto. There's a whitish area in the northeast with very few craters that may be an epicenter of the heavily implied geologic activity, and the border of tombaugh regio appears to have large quantities of chaos terrain, some of which looks eerily Europa-like, others like the jumbled mountains seen earlier (could Pluto have multiple ways to form Chaos?) The few large craters in the non-red regions appear suspiciously flat and peakless...

Colin : 09/25/2015 12:02 CDT

If I understand right, MVIC is a seven-band imager. Does it have a green band, or anything that can be used to construct an approximation to true colour? Would be nice to have an image like this like it would look to the naked eye.

Emily Lakdawalla: 09/25/2015 03:05 CDT

Colin, MVIC has 7 detectors, but no green channel. There are 2 "panchromatic" (think clear-filter) detectors for redundancy. There is 1 each in blue, red, near-infrared, and a narrow methane band. And there's one framing channel (again panchromatic) that's used primarily for optical navigation. There's no green channel, but they can approximate true color by measuring the spectral properties of Pluto with other instruments and interpolating pixel values based upon their values in the other channels. It works quite well on surfaces that gray or red, as Pluto's are. I know they plan to release such images eventually -- it's one of many things on Alex's to-do list.

LHamilton: 09/26/2015 09:57 CDT

Sputnik Planum looks like someone dropped an ice cream cone. With photos released of the many odd features we've seen speculation about causes from tectonics, glaciers, precipitation, internal churning, retained primordial or radiogenenic heat ... are impact-related hypotheses off the table for some reason that I've missed?

Bob Ware: 09/26/2015 02:12 CDT

This is a fantastic piece of processing work. The large file was an impressive piece of processing proven! It looks like they were taken at an orbital altitude that the Gemini spacecraft flew in! Impressive. It'll be nice one day to know for sure what the surface elements are. What large scale diversities!

Josh: 09/26/2015 05:51 CDT

@LHamilton: Obviously impacts have some impact on Pluto (otherwise it wouldn't have any :)) but I doubt most of the features on Pluto are strictly impact related. If Pluto's surface features were formed via impacts into a deep volatile crust, Pluto would have an incredibly low crater density because the sublimation, refreezing, and movement of such a crust would destroy craters within a matter of tens of millions of years at most. Since Pluto's crater count - except at Tombaugh regio (which is obviously a huge glacier) and the dragon scale terrain (which is definitely NOT strictly glacially based...too 'ridgey') - is considerably older than tens of millions of years (though on average still much younger than would be expected from a 'dead' world), Pluto probably doesn't have a thick volatile crust in most regions and thus most of its major features are unlikely to be impact related.

LHamilton: 09/27/2015 08:15 CDT

@Josh, thanks for that explanation, the old cratered terrain does seem to constrain some theories, perhaps also tectonics and radiogenic heating. What I wondered with the ice cream analogy was whether impactor(s) might be the main source of volatiles, for what looks like a relatively recent event. I haven't seen that discussed, so are there reasons to rule it out in favor of endogenous theories? In a similar vein, what characteristics mark the Sputnik or Tombaugh ice as glacial, rather than a flood that froze?

Josh: 09/27/2015 02:27 CDT

@LHamilton: That's the conundrum...the cratering rate is too high to be due to a thick volatile crust, but too low to be explained by a world that is geologically dead (compare Pluto to, say, the moon, Callisto, or even Mars, for instance...harder to spot the craters on Mars, but when you do you quickly realize there are far more of them - in particular, a lot more LARGE craters - than on Pluto). I believe we don't have much choice but to invoke endogenic heat here, especially since smaller, presumably cooler Charon is also suspiciously lacking craters (and probably lost any useful quantity of surface volatiles quite quickly, thus leaving endogenic heat as the only option). Anyone's guess where it's coming from...must be some BIG difference between the KBO's and icy moons, as Ganymede and Callisto (both in the range of ten times Pluto's mass) seem to be geologically dead, and while Titan might be geologically active, it's getting a lot of tidal heating from Saturn due to its eccentric (.05) orbit.

Josh: 09/27/2015 04:50 CDT

Two other points potentially in favor of geologic activity on Pluto: 1 - Nix and Hydra have been found to have unexpectedly few craters for small, non-round worlds. If either Pluto or Charon were geologically active, the absence of craters could be caused by those two worlds slowly burying them in ice particles that escape Pluto/Charon during explosive volcanic episodes. If this is correct, we would have to come up with some clever reason why this didn't also affect Kerberos... 2 - Pluto is losing its atmosphere at a frightening 500 tons an hour. Since Pluto doesn't have a thick volatile layer and tombaugh regio covers only a couple of percent of its surface at most (and doesn't seem to be more than a kilometer or two thick), Pluto's nitrogen must be being replenished somehow...and endogenic processes are the most logical way to accomplish that.

LHamilton: 09/29/2015 11:58 CDT

Finding a heat source for geologic activity must be getting some attention, I look forward to seeing how that's resolved. Despite 400x more mass, Earth evidently lost its primordial heat fairly soon after accretion, with modern warmth due to radioactive decay concentrated in the upper mantle. And radioactivity must have been much higher in the past.

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