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June 22, 2015 Increasing Variety on Pluto’s Close Approach Hemisphere, and a ‘Dark Pole’ on Charon

Features on the Close Approach Hemisphere: These images, taken by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), show numerous large-scale features on Pluto's surface. The distance to Pluto ranges from 47 million kilometers (about 29 million miles) on June 5 to 31 million kilometers (19 million miles) on June 18. When various large, dark and bright regions appear near limbs, they give Pluto a distinct, but false, non-spherical appearance. Pluto is known to be almost perfectly spherical from previous data. These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

A Dark Mystery on Charon: These recent images show the discovery of significant surface details on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. They were taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on June 18, 2015. The image on the left is the original image, displayed at four times the native LORRI image size. After applying a technique that sharpens an image called deconvolution, details become visible on Charon, including a distinct dark pole. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce "false" details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft doesn’t pass Pluto until July 14 – but the mission team is making new discoveries as the piano-sized probe bears down on the Pluto system.

In a long series of images obtained by New Horizons’ telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) May 29-June 19, Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, appear to more than double in size. From this rapidly improving imagery, scientists on the New Horizons team have found that the “close approach hemisphere” on Pluto that New Horizons will fly over has the greatest variety of terrain types seen on the planet so far. They have also discovered that Charon has a “dark pole” – a mysterious dark region that forms a kind of anti-polar cap.

"This system is just amazing," said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "The science team is just ecstatic with what we see on Pluto’s close approach hemisphere: Every terrain type we see on the planet—including both the brightest and darkest surface areas —are represented there, it’s a wonderland!

"And about Charon—wow—I don’t think anyone expected Charon to reveal a mystery like dark terrains at its pole," he continued. "Who ordered that?"

New Horizons scientists use a technique called deconvolution to sharpen the raw, unprocessed pictures that the spacecraft beams back to Earth; the contrast in these latest images has also been stretched to bring out additional details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce artifacts, so the team will be carefully reviewing newer images taken from closer range to determine whether some of the tantalizing details seen in these images persist. Pluto’s non-spherical appearance in these images is not real; it results from a combination of the image-processing technique and Pluto’s large variations in surface brightness.

"The unambiguous detection of bright and dark terrain units on both Pluto and Charon indicates a wide range of diverse landscapes across the pair," said science team co-investigator and imaging lead Jeff Moore, of NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California. “For example, the bright fringe we see on Pluto may represent frost deposited from an evaporating polar cap, which is now in summer sun.”

New Horizons is approximately 2.9 billion miles (4.7 billion kilometers) from Earth and just 16 million miles (25 million kilometers) from Pluto. The spacecraft and payload are in good health and operating normally.   

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Features on Pluto and Charon: Over the course of this "movie," assembled from a long series of images obtained by New Horizons’ telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) May 29-June 19, Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, appear to more than double in size. From this rapidly improving imagery, scientists on the New Horizons team have found that the “close approach hemisphere” on Pluto that New Horizons will fly over has the greatest variety of terrain types seen on the planet so far. The movie is "Plutocentric," meaning that Charon is shown as it moves in relation to Pluto, which is digitally centered in the movie.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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