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Starts With A Bang

Fly over NASA’s greatest ever view of Pluto

The mosaic strip that extends across the hemisphere that faced the New Horizons spacecraft as it flew past Pluto now includes all of the highest-resolution images taken by the NASA probe. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

The most distant world ever imaged by fly-by reveals a richer terrain than anyone ever expected.


“The cosmic game changed forever in 1992. Before then, logic told us that there had to be other planets besides the nine (if you still count poor Pluto) in our solar system, but until that year, when two astronomers detected faint, telltale radio signals in the constellation Virgo, we had no hard evidence of their existence.” –Thomas Mallon

After nearly a decade’s-long journey, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015.

A high-resolution view of Pluto’s surface close up, including a large portion of Sputnik Planum, the heart-shaped bright, icy region. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

It passed within 12,500 km (7,800 miles) of the surface, making it the closest fly-by of any object past Saturn.

Although it will take a full 16 months to send the full suite of data home, the highest resolution images show an incredible diversity of terrain, including:

  • cratered, pitted uplands,
  • cracked, washboard-like terrain,
The interconnected valley network in the transition zone between the cratered uplands and the washboard-like terrain. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.
  • blocky, floating ice mountains,
  • “cellular” ice plains with evidence of frozen, flowing streams,
Frozen nitrogen in the mountains, at right, drains through the 2- to 5-mile (3- to 8- kilometer) wide valleys indicated by the red arrows, with the extent of the pooling lake shown by the blue arrows. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.
  • “non-cellular” (or stream-free) plains, pock-marked with evaporating pits,
  • hybrid territory, showing a mix of plains, craters, and hummocks,
  • and dark-colored highlands, free of reflective snow.
The dark, mountainous highlands of Pluto, shown at a resolution of 80 meters per pixel. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

The LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) instrument was able to obtain resolutions of just 80 meters (260 feet) per pixel, thousands of times better than what Hubble could achieve.

The edge of the “cellular” region of the plains on Pluto, with additional data from the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Additional instrumental analysis allowed us to determine that the “cells” on the plains turn over periodically due to geological convection, and are less than one million years old each.

The dark (night) side of Pluto, showcasing layers of atmospheric haze and possible low-lying clouds (foreground) nearer to the surface. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

After its closest approach, New Horizons traveled through Pluto’s shadow, catching a glimpse of the backlit atmosphere, including a possible sighting of the first cloud on a Kuiper Belt Object.


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