The excitement continues to build up for New Horizons’ close flyby of Pluto on July 14. The spacecraft has been sending a lot of photos of the dwarf planet. And now it has beamed back the most detailed image of Pluto yet. Surprisingly, the image shows a large heart-shaped bright area measuring approximately 1,200 miles across the dwarf planet’s surface.
New Horizons took this picture on July 7
The heart-shaped area is in contrast to a series of dark spots along the dwarf planet’s equator seen in earlier images. The latest image showing the heart-shaped structure was taken on July 7 from a distance of about 5 million miles, NASA said in a statement. New Horizons is moving toward Pluto at a speed of approximately 30,000 miles per hour.
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The mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, said that the next time New Horizons sends pictures of this part of Pluto, these intriguing surface features will be imaged at 500 times better resolution than we see today. NASA scientists said the wait was excruciating, but it was worth it. After traveling for nine years and three billion miles, New Horizons will fly by Pluto at a distance of just 7,800 miles on July 14.
Get ready to expect the unexpected
Alan Stern said he was expecting to see the unexpected. New Horizons gave astronomers and enthusiasts a brief scare when it went into the safe mode following a computer glitch. It had stopped radio communications with Earth for over 81 minutes. Fortunately, scientists were able to fix the glitch, and the spacecraft is now operation flawlessly.
Astronomers have started giving nicknames to various visible features of the dwarf planet. Earlier this week, they named an elongated dark feature as “the whale” and another structure as the “donut.” Once New Horizons takes pictures of Pluto from its nearest point, it will take four and a half hours for those images to reach the mission control. So, we won’t get to see them until Wednesday. The spacecraft will also collect images and data of Pluto’s five moons: Charon, Nix, Styx, Hydra, and Kerberos.