NASA has released an amazing new map of Pluto, which was prepared using images taken by New Horizons between June 27 and July 3. Features of the dwarf planet have started to emerge as the spacecraft moves closer to Pluto. New Horizons is set to make its historic flyby of Pluto on July 14 after experiencing a software glitch last weekend.
Pluto’s ‘whale’ measures 1,860 miles in length
The new map shows visible parts of Pluto on a flat projection. You can easily see bright and dark spots at the equator. On the left side of the map, there is a long dark area, which scientists have dubbed ‘The Whale.’ Measuring approximately 1,860 miles in length, it is one of the darkest regions on Pluto visible to New Horizons.
To the right of the whale’s “head,” you can see a bright region that measures roughly 990 miles across. This is the area that will present itself when New Horizons reaches its closest point to Pluto. Astronomers believe this region may contain fresh deposits of frozen methane, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. Continuing to the right, four mysterious dark spots are visible that have intrigued NASA scientists. Each of them is a few hundred miles across, but what they represent is still unclear.
The ‘donut’ may be a volcano or impact crater
Go back to the left side of the whale’s “tail” and you’ll notice a bright region shaped like a “donut” which measures about 200 meters in length. It could be a volcano or an impact crater. But scientists have avoided making any interpretation because at this resolution any interpretation will be mere speculation. New Horizons is now less than 5 million miles from Pluto.
At its closest encounter, New Horizons will be 13,000km above the surface of Pluto. It will take a lot of images and scientific data during the flyby. Those images will be pin sharp, showing targets on Pluto’s surface at a resolution of 100m per pixel. New Horizons will be traveling at 9 miles/second, too fast to enter the dwarf planet’s orbit. The probe will also collect data about Pluto’s five moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Hydra, and Kerberos.