As New Horizons closes in on Pluto, the dwarf planet continues to get bigger in pictures captured by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The NASA spacecraft is still about 24 million miles and over a month away from making a close flyby of Pluto on July 14. The latest images sent by New Horizons show the dwarf planet’s distinct surface regions: some dark, some bright.
Pluto has some really diverse terrains
Even though the pictures were taken from a distance of more than 31 million miles between May 29 and June 2, they already reveal a world far more complicated than previously thought. It has now become clear that the icy body has some really diverse terrain, said NASA in a statement. These dark and bright features will get clearer as the probe closes in on Pluto.
The images show a “complex surface with clear evidence of discrete equatorial bright and dark regions – some that may also have variations in brightness,” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern. The dwarf planet’s northern hemisphere has substantial dark terrains, and every face of Pluto is different, added Stern. Pluto’s brightest and darkest terrains are just south of its equator.
Some images make it seem like Pluto is non-spherical
The new images show a bright area at one of the dwarf planet’s poles, which astronomers suspect is an ice cap. Some photos make it look like Pluto is non-spherical, but researchers say it is just an illusion caused by the wide variations in surface brightness. At its closest encounter with Pluto, New Horizons will be travelling at about 9 miles/second, which would make it impossible for the probe to enter the dwarf planet’s orbit.
The probe will take as many images and other data as possible while flying by the 2,000-mile dwarf planet. New Horizons will also take pictures of Pluto’s five known moons – Charon, Hydra, Styx, Nix, and Kerberos. Last week, images taken by Hubble Space Telescope showed that Pluto’s smaller moons were behaving in a chaotic manner as they circled the dwarf planet, due to the lumpy gravity field of tightly bound Pluto and Charon.