The countdown has begun. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is less than 10 million miles and two weeks away from making its historic flyby of Pluto on July 14. As the spacecraft moves closer, it has started sending clearer images of the dwarf planet and its moons. New images released by the New Horizons team show that Pluto has two distinct faces.
The two faces of Pluto
One face appears smooth with large, dark features. But the opposite side has a series of spots spanning the dwarf planet’s equator. All of the spots have roughly the same diameter of 300 miles. These spots have piqued the curiosity of scientists. Astronomers haven’t yet explained the origin of these spots, but hope to find an answer when the spacecraft makes its flyby on July 14.
New Horizons captured these images of Pluto and Charon with its Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Ralph instrument. While Pluto has a brown color, its biggest moon Charon appears a lot like our moon. New Horizons principal investigator Dr Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) said the difference in the appearance and color of Pluto and Charon was “a real puzzle.”
New Horizons to look for clouds
Pluto appears brown because of the “radiation chemistry acting on the methane and nitrogen ices there.” Astronomers have known since 1976 that there was methane on Pluto. But it is the first time methane ice has been detected on the dwarf planet, NASA said in a statement. The two cameras on board the spacecraft will now search for clouds. “If we find clouds, their presence will allow us to track the speeds and directions of Pluto’s winds,” the U.S. space agency said.
On Wednesday, NASA gave New Horizons a green signal to continue on its current path towards Pluto. For the past several weeks, researchers were searching for any hidden moons, dust clouds, rings or other hazards that could potentially harm the spacecraft. Since nothing of note was found, the spacecraft has been given a go ahead.