Hello, stranger: New Horizons returns best ever images of Pluto

Pluto and Charon HubbleThat’s a picture taken from my Pocket Dorling Kindersley Space Facts book, published in 1995. Back then, that was the clearest image we had of Pluto and its moon Charon.

There have been so many unknowns around Pluto, even in recent memory. It has long been a mysterious place.

Which is what makes the images from New Horizons so exciting – we get a proper look at an old friend for the first time.

nh-mountainousshorline
Source: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

These are vast sheets of water ice in Sputnik Planum, a frozen plain bordered by the al-Idrisi mountains in Pluto’s northern hemisphere. It’s just one of the images from New Horizon’s nearest approach of Pluto on July 14, which reveal the ex-planet to be far more geologically interesting than that Hubble snap suggests.

“The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations,” said John Spencer, a New Horizons science team member.

At a resolution of about 80 metres per pixel, the images are six times more detailed than anything we’ve seen before. It’ll take until late next year to get everything back, but unless we go back, these are going to be the best pictures we get of Pluto.

New Horizons’ next stop will be small Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, which hangs around in orbit nearly a billion miles past Pluto. It’ll reach 2014 MU69, also known as Potential Target 1, on January 1, 2019.

New Horizons Pluto
Source: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Thanks again, Pluto. You’ve been great.

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