They orbit about 12,160 Michigan (19,570 kilometers) apart but about a center of gravity, or barycenter, above the surface of Pluto, unlike any of the other major bodies in our solar system.
The first hints of dramatic cliffs, chasms and craters are showing up in new imagery of Pluto and its Texas-sized moon Charon as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft prepares to bolt by the icy worlds Tuesday.
But after the 1992 discovery that the solar system had a heavily populated “backyard” beyond Neptune, a region known as the Kuiper Belt, a band of scientists won their long crusade to send a probe to Pluto.
“It’s best not to take any chances if you don’t need to”, said Mr. Fountain during a news briefing at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, mission control for New Horizons. The mission’s scientists “are really having a great time seeing the data as it comes down”.
But the increasingly clear pictures New Horizons has been sending back have revealed dark spots and polygonal shapes on Pluto’s surface – evidence of complex geology. Now it’s closing to within 1 million miles of the system.
Blurry, pixellated colour images began arriving in April and May, when the spacecraft was about 80 million kilometers away from its destination. “We’re going to turn Pluto into a real world with complexity and diversity”.
This latest image from NASA puts Pluto’s mysterious dark features into focus, that consist of spots that are found lined up in the equatorial region. The brightness of the rays emanating from the crater suggests that it formed relatively recently, researchers said.
“It looks like a very rich environment” on Pluto and on Charon, he says.
That’s when New Horizons is predicted to pass within 7,767 miles of Pluto. It’s also slightly smaller than our moon. Scientists expect to get a better look at the heart-shaped feature during the close flyby, which will bring the craft about 7,750 miles from the small world’s surface. Mapping the surface composition also will continue and in greater detail.
Pluto and Charon are gravitationally locked with an orbital period of 6.4 days, so they always show the same face to one another.
Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines.
“We are coming up on the culmination of all this effort, all this planning”, said Joe Peterson, a science operations leader for the New Horizons mission.
These approaches also will be used to see if Charon has an atmosphere. No one had any idea what it looked like.
New Horizon’s flyby sequence is pre-programmed.
For now, signals take 4½ hours to travel one-way between New Horizons and flight controllers in Maryland. The spacecraft – powered by plutonium and with dimensions the size of a baby grand piano – took the images Saturday with its long-range telescopic camera as it traveled almost 3 billion miles from Earth. Any attempt to communicate with Earth during the flyby’s most critical period would mean pulling the instruments off their targets.