At a distance of about 20 million miles from its destination, the New Horizons spacecraft has brought dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon Charon into even more intriguing focus than ever before.
Captured by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORI for short), surface detail on the two bodies could still be picked out despite the vast distance between New Horizons and its target. Light and dark features on Pluto are indicative of the dwarf planet’s terrain, which have created the illusion of an irregular shape. Meanwhile, Charon boasts a dark region at its north pole, which has been dubbed an “anti-polar cap” for now until the spacecraft gets a closer look.
New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute is excited by the image and, in particular, is astounded by Pluto’s mysterious moon: “About Charon – wow – I don’t think anyone expected Charon to reveal a mystery like dark terrains at its pole. Who ordered that?”
New Horizons is due to arrive at Pluto in just over two weeks where it will swoop within 12,472 kilometres (7,750 miles) of the dwarf planet and 28,807 kilometres (17,900 miles) of Charon. It’s intended that the spacecraft – which is comparable in size and shape to a grand piano and travelling at a speed of 58,536 kmph (36,373 mph) – will snap close-up images in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths for half an hour. Surfaces features as small as 200 feet across will be resolved, meaning that an area as small as a football stadium will be spotted with ease by New Horizons.
“Anybody who thinks we’re going to go to Pluto and find cold, dead rock is in for a rude awakening,” says Bill McKinnon, a co-investigator for the New Horizons mission. “I think we’re going to find a very dynamic planet.”