For the first time, images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are revealing bright and dark regions on the surface of the dwarf planet Pluto. The latest photos were taken from 64-70 million miles away in mid-April using the telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on the probe. 70 million may sound far until you realize that Pluto’s currently more than 3 billion miles from Earth today.
Besides those dark and bright regions, there’s a bright area at one of Pluto’s poles. A polar cap? Maybe. We also see Pluto’s largest and brightest moon, Charon, rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit in the photos. Since the exposures were brief – 1/10 of a second – none of the dwarf planet’s tiny, fainter moons are seen.
“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”
Although just a blobby dot, these are the best images of Pluto EVER, even better than those taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. And the good news is, we’re hardly even close. During its mid-July flyby, New Horizons will swoop only 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. Polar bears anyone?