The latest map of Pluto, made from images taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument aboard New Horizons, gives an intriguing view of the bright and dark patches along the equator, although mission scientists admit we are still at the “man in the moon” stage of imaging.
“It’s easy to imagine you’re seeing familiar shapes in this bizarre collection of light and dark features. However, it’s too early to know what these features really are,” said John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, deputy leader of the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team.
The map was created from images taken from 27 June to 3 July by LORRI, combined with lower-resolution colour data from the spacecraft’s Ralph instrument.
The centre of the map corresponds to the side of Pluto that will be seen close-up during New Horizons’ 14 July flyby.
Despite the shortcomings in the imagery, NASA says the map gives mission scientists an important tool to decipher the complex and intriguing pattern of bright and dark markings on Pluto’s surface.
Features from all sides of Pluto can now be seen at a glance and from a consistent perspective, making it much easier to compare their shapes and sizes.
The elongated dark area informally known as “the whale,” along the equator on the left side of the map, is one of the darkest regions visible to New Horizons. It measures some 3,000 kilometres in length.
Directly to the right of the whale’s “head” is the brightest region visible on the planet, which is roughly 1,600 kilometres across.
This may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost—perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide—form a bright coating.
To the right along the equator are the four mysterious dark spots that have so intrigued the world, each of which is hundreds of miles across.
The whale’s “tail,” at the left end of the dark feature, cradles a bright donut-shaped feature about 350 kilometres across that resembles circular features of either an impact crater or perhaps a volcano. But scientists say they do not want to offer an inetrpretation until they have more detailed imagery.
NASA has also released a KMZ version of the map that can be used in Google Earth. You can download it here http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/Multimedia/Google-Map/
You can read more Cosmos coverage of the New Horizons mission here.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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