Bright and dark regions on the surface of faraway Pluto have been seen for the first time, with scientists speculating that one of the bright regions near one pole could be a polar cap.
The images were taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, due for a close fly-by of Pluto in mid-July.
“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.”
New Horizons also captured images of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, rotating in its 6.4-day long orbit. The exposure times used to create this image set – a tenth of a second – were too short for the camera to detect Pluto’s four much smaller and fainter moons.
Since it was discovered in 1930, Pluto has remained an enigma. It orbits our sun more than 5 billion kilometres) from Earth, and researchers have struggled to discern any details about its surface. These latest New Horizons images allow the mission science team to detect clear differences in brightness across Pluto’s surface as it rotates.
“After traveling more than nine years through space, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”
NASA’s New Horizons website is here.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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