NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has returned the sharpest images ever of cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains on Pluto and the best close-ups of the mysterious system that humans may see for decades.
These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet per pixel – revealing features less than half the size of a city block on Pluto’s diverse surface.
“These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see,” he added.
The pictures trend from Pluto’s jagged horizon about 800 km northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum across the al-Idrisi mountains – over the shoreline of Sputnik and across its icy plains.
“These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern.
Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first fly-bys.
“Yet at Pluto we are there already – down among the craters, mountains and ice fields – less than five months after fly-by! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable,” he added.
These new images are six times better than the resolution of the global Pluto map New Horizons obtained, and five times better than the best images of Pluto’s cousin Triton, Neptune’s large moon, obtained by Voyager 2 in 1989.
Mission scientists are expecting more imagery from this set over the next several days.
Each week, the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft transmits data stored on its digital recorders from its flight through the Pluto system on July 14 this year.