New Horizons craft nears Pluto, captures photos

As the New Horizons spacecraft closes in on the icy dwarf planet Pluto and its system of moons, astronomers are learning more than ever about this distant family of bodies.

New Horizons craft nears Pluto, captures photos

World Bulletin / News Desk

 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is nearing Pluto and new photos captured by the craft show the surface of the dwarf planet is marked with dark spots, the space agency said Thursday.

New Horizons is on course to encounter Pluto on July 14, humanity’s first ever close-up meeting with the far-out space object, formerly the last planet in the solar system before astronomers downgraded Pluto’s status to “dwarf planet” almost a decade ago.

New Horizons’ visit to Pluto follows a nine-year, 4.8 billion kilometer (3 billion mile) journey. The color images captured by the spacecraft on June 25 and 27 show Pluto’s surface is pinkish – a hue not usually associated with its frigid temperatures. NASA also gathered photos of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, which appears to be a darker, gray color. 

Scientists are most excited by a series of spots dotting Pluto’s equator. NASA noted that the spots are evenly spaced and most appear to have a rough diameter of 480 kilometers (300 miles).

“It's a real puzzle. We don't know what the spots are, and we can't wait to find out,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. “Also puzzling is the longstanding and dramatic difference in the colors and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and grayer moon Charon.”

Launched in January 2006 – the same year Pluto lost its planet status – New Horizons is currently less than 15 million kilometers (9.3 million miles) from Pluto.

“One of my fondest hopes for the flyby, apart from the great science we’ll do, is that people across the world will join in to experience the thrill of science and exploration through New Horizons,” Stern said.

Instruments on New Horizons also detected frozen methane on Pluto’s surface, NASA noted earlier this week. The space agency believes the methane could date back to Pluto’s creation and could be remains from the nebula that birthed the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. 

Last Mod: 03 Temmuz 2015, 10:21
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