With barely three months from reaching its historic destination on July 14, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has snapped the first ever full-colour picture of Pluto and its largest moon Charon.
Taken by the Ralph colour imager aboard the probe from a distance of about 115 million kilometres on April 9, this picture serves as a tantalising glimpse of the exciting close-up images that are soon to follow.
“Scientific literature is filled with papers on the characteristics of Pluto and its moons from ground based and Earth orbiting space observations, but we’ve never studied Pluto up close and personal,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and Associate Administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “In an unprecedented flyby this July, our knowledge of what the Pluto system is really like will expand exponentially and I have no doubt there will be exciting discoveries.”
The fastest spacecraft ever launched (hurtling towards its destination at around 50.000 km/h), New Horizons has travelled a longer time and further away – more than nine years and 4.8 billion kilometres – than any space mission in history.
On July 14, New Horizons will fly by the dwarf planet’s system at a distance of around 12.500 kilometres, thereby completing the initial reconnaissance of our solar system which began with Venus and Mars in the 1960s and continued through first glances at Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn in the 1970s and Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.
“This is pure exploration; we’re going to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons before your eyes!,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “New Horizons is flying to Pluto – the biggest, brightest and most complex of the dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt. This 21st century encounter is going to be an exploration bonanza unparalleled in anticipation since the storied missions of Voyager in the 1980s.”
Equipped with the most advanced suite of cameras, spectrometers, plasma and dust detectors, and other instruments, the probe will map the geology, surface composition and temperature of Pluto and Charon, examine Pluto’s atmosphere, search for an atmosphere around Charon, study Pluto’s other satellites and look for rings and additional satellites around Pluto.
“Our team has worked hard to get to this point, and we know we have just one shot to make this work,” said Alice Bowman, New Horizons mission operations manager at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, which built and operates the spacecraft. “We’ve plotted out each step of the Pluto encounter, practiced it over and over, and we’re excited the ‘real deal’ is finally here.”
As the probe approaches its target, it will commence an ultra-intensive bout of data collection – gathering about 100 times more information than it will be able to send back before flying away – which means it will be returning obtained datasets stored onboard for a full 16 months.
“New Horizons is one of the great explorations of our time,” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver at APL. “There’s so much we don’t know, not just about Pluto, but other worlds like it. We’re not rewriting textbooks with this historic mission – we’ll be writing them from scratch.”