Three billion miles away, Pluto has sent a “love note” back to Earth, via NASA's New Horizons spacecraft.
At about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13 - some 16 hours before closest approach - New Horizons captured this stunning image of one of Pluto's most dazzling and dominant features. The “heart,” estimated to be 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) across at its widest point, rests just above the equator. (The angle of view displays mostly the northern hemisphere.) The heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago, in America’s heartland.
"Wow!” said New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, as the image was unveiled before the New Horizons science team at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. “My prediction was that we would find something wonderful, and we did. This is proof that good things really do come in small packages.”
The newest image from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) shows an almost perfectly shaped left half of a bright, heart-shaped feature centered just above Pluto’s equator, while the right side of the heart appears to be less defined.
The image shows for the first time that some surfaces on Pluto are peppered with impact craters and are therefore relatively ancient, perhaps several billion years old. Other regions, such as the interior of the heart, show no obvious craters and thus are probably younger, indicating that Pluto has experienced a long and complex geological history. Some craters appear partially destroyed, perhaps by erosion. There are also hints that parts of Pluto’s crust have been fractured, as indicated by the series of linear features to the left of the heart.
Below the heart are dark terrains along Pluto’s equator, including, on the left, the large dark feature informally known as the “whale.” Craters pockmark part of the whale’s head; areas that appear smooth and featureless may be a result of image compression.
New Horizons traveled nearly a decade to receive its summer valentine, launching on January 19, 2006.
This is just the latest in a series of the New Horizons Pluto "picture show." On Wednesday, July 15, more images of surface close-ups will make the more than four-hour journey to Earth at the speed of light to give Pluto fans details as small as New York’s Central Park.
Our data tomorrow (Wednesday, July 15) will have ten times the resolution of what we see today and it will knock your socks off,” said Stern.
Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist with NASA Headquarters in Washington, notes, The science is amazing, but the team’s excitement reminds me of why we really do this.”
At 7:49 AM EDT on Tuesday, July 14, New Horizons sped past Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour (49,600 kilometers per hour), with a suite of seven science instruments. As planned, New Horizons went incommunicado as it hurtled through the Pluto-Charon system busily gathering data. The New Horizons team will breathe a sigh of relief when New Horizons “phones home” at approximately 9:02 p.m. EDT on July 14. The mission to the icy dwarf planet completes the initial reconnaissance of the solar system.
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