Here they are, the first images of Pluto from the encounter phase of the New Horizons mission. We're on the home stretch!
The caption released with this image also says "The image exposure time was only a tenth of a second, which is too short to detect Pluto's smaller moons. LORRI will also be taking images with longer exposure times (10 seconds) that should reveal both Nix and Hydra." Those images will have four times lower resolution than the one above, for reasons I explained in my blog post about the Pluto optical navigation campaign.
These images are simultaneously exciting and frustrating. Exciting, because: Pluto!! But frustrating, because they still don't show any details on the surface that I as a geologist can get excited about. And New Horizons won't be able to get us that level of detail until July. Thank goodness for Dawn at Ceres, which is slaking my thirst for images of new worlds. (I expect to see new, best-ever images of Ceres any day now.)
Nevertheless: Pluto!! And Charon!!!
Speaking of July, many people who are beginning to plan their summer vacations have asked me what to plan for regarding New Horizons' Pluto encounter. I have a very long and detailed post or two in the works about that, but in the meantime, here are a few bullet points to help you make plans. Times of day refer to the United States; I am being deliberately vague about most of the times here and will give more detail later.
- We expect a really great photo of Pluto to hit the ground very late in the evening Monday, July 13.
- On Tuesday, July 14, we will get no images. We will hear a beep from the spacecraft if it survived close approach at about 6pm PDT / 9pm EDT / 1am UT.
- Wednesday, July 15 should see two downlinks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with some really great photos -- Pluto and Charon both filling the frame, the best picture of Nix, and a couple of high-res photos of sections of Pluto.
- In general, the New Horizons team has planned carefully to receive the very most photogenic images first, with images trickling in over the next couple of days so that Sunday (July 19) papers and news shows will have great material for big features including global views of all the objects and a few selected high-res detail photos of Pluto and Charon.
Much more detail to come; stay tuned!