NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft sends back more images of Pluto as it nears the icy planet; it sent back a stunning image on Tuesday when it was just 8 million km away from Pluto.
By Thursday the spacecraft had moved within 6 million km of the dwarf planet as it prepares for its flyby scheduled for July 14th.
These new images are the first to be sent from the spacecraft after it suffered a malfunction that caused New Horizon to switch to its backup computers and an 81-minute radio silence occurred. All communication was lost with mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
The view that can be seen in the new image is broadly that which will be examined in detail on July 14th.
The new map of Pluto reveals an elongated dark area that researches have informally named the whale, the are is 1,900 miles long, there is bright area on the east side of it and scientists have a theory that it might contain fresh deposits of frost.
New Horizon is equipped with a high resolution camera, Lorri, which snaps images at a resolution better than 100m per pixel.
The image above has also been clicked by Lorri, but the color addition has been from New Horizon’s other camera called Ralph.
New Horizon co-investigator, John Spencer from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, shared his excitement over the new images of Pluto, he said that they might be a little blurry but so far they are the best images of Pluto ever seen by mankind, and as the spacecraft nears the dwarf planet, the images will only get better.
SwRI astronomer and New Horizons team member Alex Parker tweeted this graphic
“Right now they’re just showing us that Pluto is really weird. It’s got some extremely dark areas, some extremely bright areas, and we don’t know what any of them are yet,” Dr Spencer told Newshour on the BBC World Service.
Dr. Spencer and his team have a theory for the brightest patch and the darkest patch that can be seen, they think the bright patch can potentially be full of frozen carbon monoxide, and the dark patch may be deposits of hydrocarbons, burnt out of Pluto’s atmosphere by UV light and cosmic rays.
However nothing certain until further evidence to support this claim is gathered.
Dr. Spencer stated that by next Tuesday New Horizon would be sending images that will be 500 times better than the this image.
When the spacecraft nears Pluto it will be traveling too fast, at 14km/s, to go into orbit. So as it flies by it will execute an automated, pre-planned reconnaissance, grabbing as many pictures and other data as it speeds past the 2,300 km wide icy planet and its five known moons.
The flyby is scheduled on the same date as the 50th anniversary of the first American pass of Mars by the spacecraft named Mariner 4. However New Horizon will gather 5,000 times more data at Pluto than Mariner did at Mars.
The craft has been in the solar system since January 2006 and has been heading toward the one out of the five known moons of the dwarf planet. Pluto’s primary moon is called Charon. Initially New Horizon journeyed to Pluto in hibernation; it took 9 years and 3 billion miles for it to get near Pluto. NASA scientists revived the spacecraft in January and began collecting its data. The spacecraft will make its closest approach to the icy dwarf planet flying within 7,750 miles, inside the orbit of Charon, at 7:49 a.m. ET July 14.
However it will take a total of 16 months for the spacecraft to send back all the data it gathers because New Horizon is 4.5 billion km away from Earth so sending and receiving information takes hours.