NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first color ‘movies’ of Pluto and its biggest moon Charon. The videos reveal a strange and complex orbital dance of the two bodies, called a double planet. New Horizons principal examiner Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) said it was exciting to see Pluto and Charon in color and in motion.
Pluto and Charon orbit a central point
In the new animation of color photos taken by New Horizons, you can see Pluto and its largest moon orbiting a central point, rather than Charon orbiting Pluto. This phenomenon is called a “double planet.” NASA released two videos of Pluto and Charon based on images taken by New Horizons between May 29 and June 3. In one video, the dwarf planet is at the center as Charon orbits around it.
But the second clip reveals the strange reality. It shows the two bodies orbiting a central point known as a barycenter. It is the shared center of gravity for two bodies. Since Pluto is much bigger than Charon, the barycenter is closer to the dwarf planet than its moon, said NASA. New Horizons is on way to make a historic flyby of Pluto and its five known moons on July 14th.
Pluto is beige-orange in color
At its closest point, the spacecraft will be 12,500km above Pluto’s surface. It will collect data and take pictures that will help astronomers understand the surface properties, atmosphere and moons of Pluto. Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist, said that the color images are going to get much clearer, revealing the nature of the surface of Pluto and “the way volatiles transport around their surfaces.”
Even at this low resolution, we can clearly see that the dwarf planet and its moon have different colors, said Alan Stern. While Charon is gray, Pluto is beige-orange in color. Why they are so different in color is still unclear. Some claim that Pluto’s moons have different origins and were captured by the dwarf planet at different times.