As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft hurtles the final million kilometres to its rendezvous with the dwarf planet Pluto, it is already providing geologists with a wealth of new information.
The image above reveals linear features that may be cliffs, as well as a circular feature that could be an impact crater.
Just starting to rotate into view on the left side of the image is the bright heart-shaped feature that will be seen in more detail during New Horizons’ closest approach.
New Horizons has also answered one of the most basic questions about Pluto — its size. At 2,370 kilometres in diameter, the dwarf planet is somewhat larger than previously thought. It’s about two-thirds the size of our Moon.
The measurements were possible thanks to images acquired with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).
“The size of Pluto has been debated since its discovery in 1930. We are excited to finally lay this question to rest,” said mission scientist Bill McKinnon, Washington University, St. Louis.
Pluto’s newly estimated size means that its density is slightly lower than previously thought, and the fraction of ice in its interior is slightly higher. Also, the lowest layer of Pluto’s atmosphere, called the troposphere, is shallower than previously believed.
Measuring Pluto’s size has been a decades-long challenge due to complicating factors from its atmosphere. Its largest moon Charon lacks a substantial atmosphere, and its diameter was easier to determine using ground-based telescopes. New Horizons observations of Charon confirm previous estimates of 751 miles (1208 km) kilometers) across
LORRI has also zoomed in on two of Pluto’s smaller moons, Nix and Hydra.
“We knew from the time we designed our flyby that we would only be able to study the small moons in detail for just a few days before closest approach,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “Now, deep inside Pluto’s sphere of influence, that time has come.”
Nix and Hydra were discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. Even to Hubble, they appeared as points of light, and that’s how they looked to New Horizons until the final week of its approach to Pluto. Now, the latest LORRI images show the two diminutive satellites not as pinpoints, but as moons seen well enough to measure their sizes. Nix is estimated to be about 20 miles (about 35 kilometers) across, while Hydra is roughly 30 miles (roughly 45 kilometers) across. These sizes lead mission scientists to conclude that their surfaces are quite bright, possibly due to the presence of ice.
What about Pluto’s two? Smaller and fainter than Nix and Hydra, they are harder to measure. Mission scientists hope to measure Pluto’s two smallest moons, Kerberos and Styx, during the flyby later today.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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