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Almost there…

So… here we are, Monday morning, and my increasingly-useful “PlutoSafari” app tells me New Horizons is 1 day 3 hours 0 minutes and 31 seconds away from its closest approach to Pluto. Tomorrow is going to be crazy, and if anything the day after will be even crazier, but today should be a relatively quiet day. We’ll see what happens, maybe they’ll drop some surprise images on us.

I spent a LOT of yesterday online, lurking in the corner of the internet like a spider (why the hell did I use THAT image? I hate spiders!!!), just following what was happening with the New Horizons mission from various directions and sources: Twitter was useful for following comments both from mission members and journalists/bloggers/reporters gathered at NH mission control in advance of and during a press Q&A in the evening; Facebook was good for keeping an eye on astronomy people not at mission control but equally excited by the mission; space exploration forums were useful for following the feverish speculation going on about what the images are showing. Some people are predicting geysers or shiny ice, others are expecting to see hints of clouds hovering above Pluto’s limb… it will be fascinating to see how many of these theories pan out.

After my day of lurking, I stayed up late last night in anticipation of a new image being released, but at around 1am I think it was the team said they wouldn’t be releasing any images “until tomorrow” – which is today – so I turned off my phone, tablet and laptop, all of which I’d been using during the day, and headed to bed –

– only to find when I got up this morning that the sneaky little blighters had released some new images overnight after all, and it was catch-up time!

One of the images was of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon…

charon new crop

As soon as I saw that I thought “oooh, craters!” because you can clearly see two round, dark features with bright ‘aprons’ around them, one down at the bottom and centre of the disc, the other over on the right about halfway up. And, even more exciting, at the three o’clock position there is what looks very much like a canyon of some sort…!

The press release that went with the release of the images confirms that, and offers up some fascinating analysis of the image from the New Horizons team:

New Horizons’ newest images reveal Pluto’s largest moon Charon to be a world of chasms and craters. The most pronounced chasm, which lies in the southern hemisphere, is longer and miles deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, according to William McKinnon, deputy lead scientist with New Horizon’s Geology and Geophysics investigation team.

“This is the first clear evidence of faulting and surface disruption on Charon,” says McKinnon, who is based at the Washington University in St. Louis. “New Horizons has transformed our view of this distant moon from a nearly featureless ball of ice to a world displaying all kinds of geologic activity.”

The most prominent crater, which lies near the south pole of Charon in an image taken July 11 and radioed to Earth today, is about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) across. The brightness of the rays of material blasted out of the crater suggest it formed relatively recently in geologic terms, during a collision with a small Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) some time in the last billion years.

The darkness of the crater’s floor is especially intriguing, says McKinnon. One explanation is that the crater has exposed a different type of icy material than the more reflective ices that lie on the surface. Another possibility is that the ice in the crater floor is the same material as its surroundings but has a larger ice grain size, which reflects less sunlight. In this scenario, the impactor that gouged the crater melted the ice in the crater floor, which then refroze into larger grains.

A mysterious dark region near Charon’s north pole stretches for 200 miles. More detailed images that New Horizons will take around the time of closest approach to the moon on July 14 may provide hints about the dark region’s origin.  

With a bit of tweaking in my various image processing programs I got this…

collage charon july 13

Now, I’ll say again, I am NOT suggesting that the “processing” I do on images like this is scientifically accurate or even useful. There’s no fancy calibration process being used, or image registering, etc, I am genuinely just playing about with a half dozen photo processing software packages and websites to try and a) pull out more detail, and b) create images which look pleasing. So the image on the right there may have some image processing artefacts on it, it might not, I just think it looks striking, that’s all.

But what about Pluto itself..?

Overnight this was released into the wild by the NH team…

071215_pluto_alone_0

…and that is just eye-bulgingly good isn’t it? So much going on there… and with a bit of work, it became this…

Pluto July 13 collage

Ladies and gentlemen – Pluto, revealed at last…🙂

Just take a moment to think about what we’re seeing now. In 1930 Pluto was discovered on a pair of photographic plates. It looked exactly like it did through a telescope – a tiny dot. Today, we can see it as a world, with what look like an ice cap, craters, dark plains, and more, That’s how incredible a time and an event this is. Or, to put it another way…

collage then now c

Will end this post with my “best today” view of Pluto. Compared to what we’ll see soon this is fuzzy and crude and blurry, but it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. More later!

pluto best new

One Response

  1. Thanks for posting your excellent report Stuart. Your enthusiasm is definitely and infectiously appreciated!
    Also, to commend your excellent enhancement processing to sharpen up those preliminary released, and relatively close-up images so far.
    I’m looking forward to the next days, as the suspense is really building now!
    – Mark

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