New Horizons team calls Pluto a ‘wonderland’; Charon has a ‘dark pole’

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Though New Horizons’ imaging capabilities are a decade old, its systems can be pegged as one of the best in space and the spacecraft is reiterating the fact again and again as it sends our ever-so-clear imagery of Pluto and its moon system.

The latest in the series of images were take by New Horizons’ telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) from May 29 to June 19 and the images taken are some of the best till date. Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, now appear more than double in size.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft doesn’t pass Pluto until July 14 – but the mission team is making new discoveries as the piano-sized probe bears down on the Pluto system. From the latest imagery, scientists on the New Horizons team have found that the “close approach hemisphere” on Pluto that New Horizons will fly over has the greatest variety of terrain types seen on the planet so far.

They have also discovered that Charon has a “dark pole” – a mysterious dark region that forms a kind of anti-polar cap.

Calling the system as amazing, Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator, from the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado said that the science team is ecstatic with what has been seen on Pluto’s close approach hemisphere.

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“Every terrain type we see on the planet—including both the brightest and darkest surface areas —are represented there, it’s a wonderland!” Stern added. “And about Charon—wow—I don’t think anyone expected Charon to reveal a mystery like dark terrains at its pole,” he continued. “Who ordered that?”

New Horizons scientists use a technique called deconvolution to sharpen the raw, unprocessed pictures that the spacecraft beams back to Earth; the contrast in these latest images has also been stretched to bring out additional details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce artifacts, so the team will be carefully reviewing newer images taken from closer range to determine whether some of the tantalizing details seen in these images persist. Pluto’s non-spherical appearance in these images is not real; it results from a combination of the image-processing technique and Pluto’s large variations in surface brightness.

“The unambiguous detection of bright and dark terrain units on both Pluto and Charon indicates a wide range of diverse landscapes across the pair,” said science team co-investigator and imaging lead Jeff Moore, of NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California. “For example, the bright fringe we see on Pluto may represent frost deposited from an evaporating polar cap, which is now in summer sun.”

New Horizons is approximately 2.9 billion miles (4.7 billion kilometers) from Earth and just 16 million miles (25 million kilometers) from Pluto. The spacecraft and payload are in good health and operating normally.