NASA’s New Horizons probe has sent back the first of the sharpest images of Pluto it took during its July flyby of the planet.1
These latest images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide on a world 3 billion miles away. The pictures trend from Pluto’s jagged horizon about 500 miles (800 kilometers) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, over the shoreline of Sputnik, and across its icy plains.
View the new image at high resolution here or watch a video scroll of the imagery:
The backlit photos of Pluto just posted by NASA are breathtaking. Look at this:
Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across.
As they say, best viewed large. Some of those features don’t look like mountains at all, but like reptile scales or huge shards of ice pushed up into the sky. Fantastic.
Bjorn Jonsson used the photos taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to make an animation of the probe’s flyby of Pluto.
The time covered is 09:35 to 13:35 (closest approach occurred near 11:50). Pluto’s atmosphere is included and should be fairly realistic from about 10 seconds into the animation and to the end. Earlier it is largely just guesswork that can be improved in the future once all data has been downlinked from the spacecraft. Light from Pluto’s satellite Charon illuminates Pluto’s night side but is exaggerated here, in reality it would be only barely visible or not visible at all.
Fantastic…and Pluto’s moons flying about in the background is the cherry on the top. (via @BadAstronomer)
This morning, the New Horizons probe zinged safely1 past Pluto. Before it did, it transmitted the best photo we’ve seen of Pluto so far…the last one we’ll get before we get the really good stuff. Look at this:
The probe’s “I’m OK!” message will reach Earth around 9pm ET tonight and we’ll start seeing photos from the flyby Wednesday afternoon…there’s a NASA press conference scheduled for 3pm ET on July 15. So exciting!
Update: The photo above is also the best full-disk image of Pluto that we will get…the rest will be close-ups and such. So that’s the official Pluto portrait from now on, folks.
As the New Horizons probe nears Pluto, I’ve been reading a bit more about how it’s going to work and what sort of photos we’re going to get. Emily Lakdawalla has a comprehensive post about what to expect when you’re expecting a flyby of Pluto. The post contains an image of approximations of the photos New Horizon will take, using Voyager images of Jovian and Saturnian moons as stand-ins. The highest resolution photo of Pluto will be 0.4 km/pixel…it’ll have this approximate level of detail:
Which is pretty amazing and exciting considering that before the mission started this was our best view of Pluto:
NASA’s Eyes app lets you see a simulation of the probe as it approaches Pluto, but if you don’t want to download anything, you can watch this video of the flyby instead:
I had no idea the probe spun around so much as it grabs photos & scans and then beams them back to Earth. And the flyby is so fast! New Horizons is currently moving at 32,500 mph relative to the Sun…it’s travelling just over 9 miles every second. (via @Tim_Meyer_ & @badastronomer)
Pluto is so far away that we haven’t even been able to get a good look at it, not even with the crazy-powerful Hubble telescope. But with NASA’s New Horizons mission closing in on our solar system’ ninth planet,1 we are getting a better and better view of Pluto every day.1Here’s the latest, from just a few hours ago:
New Horizons will reach its closest approach to Pluto in just under 6 days, on July 14. The probe will pass within 7,800 miles of the surface…I can’t wait to find out what that day’s photos look like.
Update: You don’t even need to wait until tomorrow for that better image…here’s one that NASA released just a short while ago. Tune in tomorrow for an even better view.
Ok, Pluto fans. They evicted Pluto from our solar system’s planetary pantheon, but a NASA mission launched in 2006 is nearing the dwarf planet with its cameras. We’ll soon have photos of Pluto that are much more high resolution than we currently have, which means scientists will need names for all the new geographic features. The Our Pluto site has been set up to help suggest and vote on names for these features. Naming themes include historic explorers, travelers to the underworld, and scientists and engineers. Go vote! (via slate)
Matt Webb of BERG shares some of his favorite sci-fi about each of the planets. And the Sun (sort of)…no solar system sci-fi list would be complete without a mention of Sunshine.
In 2057, the Sun is dying, and the Earth is freezing. So the ship Icarus 2 goes on a mission to reignite it with a massive bomb. This is the movie Sunshine, and if you get a chance to see it, watch it on a big screen. The crew themselves watch the Sun close-up, awestruck, from a view-port the exact dimensions of a movie screen, so the Sun fills your picture too and you spend half the film bathing in powerful yellow light. Like some kind of church.
Although I didn’t, Matt, appreciate the diss of Pluto. Never forget, my friend.
The Natural History Museum got a lot of hate mail from children when they demoted Pluto from planet to a resident of the Kuiper Belt, including this one from a fellow named Will:
All nine of the planets in our solar system are represented in these wonderful posters by Ross Berens.
Pluto. Never forget.
Meg bought Ollie this ball a couple of weeks ago. It’s got all the planets of the solar system on it, plus the Sun. But no Pluto. That’s right, it’s barely been two years since Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status and the toy manufacturers have already made the adjustment.
It saddens me that Ollie has to grow up in a world where Pluto isn’t considered a planet, although I take comfort that his textbooks probably won’t be updated by the time he’s in school. In the meantime, I’ve Sharpied Pluto onto his ball.
One ball at a time people, that’s how we win.
Is “dwarf planet” an ironym? “Pluto is a dwarf planet, but we are now faced with the absurdity that a dwarf planet is not a planet.” (thx, adriana)
After hearing the news that Pluto had been demoted from its full planetary status in the solar system, Meg and I decided to hold a contest to find a new mnemonic device for the planets, replacing the old “My very elegant mother just served us nine pizzas” (among others). The mnemonic could work for either the new 8 planet line-up, the 8 major + 3 dwarf planets, or the old 9 planet arrangement in protest of Pluto’s demotion. Thanks to everyone who entered; we received a bunch of great entries and it was hard to choose a winner. But first place goes to Josh Mishell for:
My! Very educated morons just screwed up numerous planetariums.
Josh’s protest mnemonic is memorable, topical, and goes beyond a simple description of the shameful proceedings in Prague to real-world consequences. As the winning entrant, Josh will receive a print from HistoryShots…we’re suggesting Race to the Moon. Congratulations to Josh.
Now, some runners-up. These came very close to winning:
Many Very Earnest Men Just Snubbed Unfortunate Ninth Planet (Dave Child)
“My vision, erased. Mercy! Just some underachiever now.” (Delia, as spoken by Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh)
Most vexing experience, mother just served us nothing! (Bart Baxter)
There were several entries that referenced vegetarianism and veganism; this haiku by Evan Norris was my favorite:
most vegans envy
my jovian silhouette,
Update: A reader noted that Evan’s haiku incorrectly swaps the positions of Neptune and Uranus. Happily, “usually not” works just as well. (thx, peter)
The honorary mention for lack of sophistication goes to Andrea Harner and Jonah Peretti for:
Molesting Very Excitedly, Michael Jackson Sucks Underage Nipples
Best foreign language award goes to Bernardo Carvalho for his Portuguese mnemonic (remember, “Earth” is something like “Terra” in Portuguese so the t fits. And we’ll ignore the e too…):
minha velha, traga meu jantar: sopa, uva, nozes e pão (Translated: “Old woman, bring me dinner: soup, grapes, nuts and bread”)
And here are some of the best of the rest:
Mollifying voluminous egos means judiciously striking underappreciated named planetoid (Bruce Turner)
Most Virgins Eventually Marry Jocks So Unscrupulously Naughty (Aaron Arcello)
Morons Violate Every Map Just So UFOs Navigate Poorly (Sean Tevis)
My violin emits minimal joy since union nixed Pluto (C.D.)
Maximum velocity earns many joyous shouts, unless not planetary (Scott Tadman)
Thanks again to everyone who entered!
Boo, astronomers, boo!!!
Astronomers meeting in the Czech capital have voted to strip Pluto of its status as a planet. About 2,500 experts were in Prague for the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) general assembly. Astronomers rejected a proposal that would have retained Pluto as a planet and brought three other objects into the cosmic club. Pluto has been considered a planet since its discovery in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh.
Screw this, what about all of Pluto’s mindshare? Now we’re going to need a new mnemonic device.
Update: Meg and I came up with a mnew mnemonic device in protest of the Pluto decision:
Man, very erroneous! Moronic jerks shouldn’t uninclude neat Pluto.
And you know what that means! Mnemonic device contest! Send in your best mnew mnemonic device for remembering the planets (either for the old 9 planets or the new 8 planets) and you’ll be entered to win an as-yet-unspecified prize. All entries must be sent with the subject line “Pluto mnemonic device contest” and must be received by 5pm ET today. I’ll publish the winners sometime soon. Contest update: Ok, pencils down, it’s 5pm and the contest has concluded. Judging will take place soon and the still-as-yet-unspecified prize will be awarded directly following.