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Pluto and Charon in the spotlight

Later today there will be another release of images from the NEW HORIZONS team. Yes, another. They released some a couple of days ago, mid-evening Wednesday actually, but I haven’t managed to write about them yet – yeah, I know, unlike everyone else in the world! ( Sorry, but I have a real life to attend to sometimes, I can’t just sit here eating pickled onion Fish n Chips snacks and writing about pretty pictures of Pluto like this every day… )

So, Wednesday night was the Big Reveal we had all been looking forward to – the NASA TV-streamed “media briefing” at which the first truly high resolution images of Pluto and Charon would be released. I managed to grab an hour’s kip before the briefing, shattered, and then almost slept right through it when my alarm (Stella) failed to wake me as early as I had wanted, and I had an absolutely frantic race against time to fire up my laptop and get on to NASA TV before the images were released. Luckily there was a bit of waffling at the start of the event, so I was watching when the first close-up of Charon was shown to the world –

And when it appeared on my screen I actually let out a gasp.,

charon 1 NASA TV

Oh… my… god.. look at THAT…

A dark polar cap… a valley system meandering across its middle… a hint of a truly giant canyon on its limb… craters dotted here ad there… I don’t think anyone had dared hope Charon would look anything like that, and when it was shown the crowd gathered at the event went justifiably nuts, just wild. And with that one picture Charon was instantly transformed into a genuine moon, a proper world “out there” in the depths of the solar system. It’s worth comparing what Charon looked like when it was discovered in 1978 with what it looked like to New Horizons as it sped past…

collage charon

A little bit of photo imaging trickery brought out some of the lower contrast detail on the image…

nh-charon enh me

Isn’t that incredible? (not the processing, the moon I mean!) Looking at that I’m torn between wanting to whoop and cheer at what NH actually saw and wanting to reach into the screen and somehow rotate Charon around until that fascinating gorge-like feature up there at 2 o’clock is brought fully into view. That must be an incredible sight…Β  oh well, next time… πŸ˜‰

No sooner had all the excitement about that image died down than it was time for the image release everyone had been waiting for – the first high resolution view of the surface of Pluto. Watching NASA TV I could almost sense hundreds of thousands of people all around the world leaning forward, towards their screens…

Pluto close up 1 NASA TV


Seriously, I wanted to punch the air and shout but my breath caught in my throat. All I could do was sit and stare at it, open-mouthed. And when the camera cut away to the people on the stage, with the image behind them, I knew they were talking but I wasn’t listening, just catching the odd word or two. One word kept being used… “mountains”…

What? What did they just say? Mountains?

Yes. Mountains. There were mountains on Pluto.


Not just any old mountains tho, mountains of ice as hard as rock… mountains as hard as rock, 11,000 feet high, or “as high as the Rockies”. That sounded very impressive, but as I’d never seen them, even though I’d heard of them obviously, I had to Google them –


So…. Pluto has mountains as high as that…. ok…………

I watched the rest of the media briefing, but even though I knew people were talking, and others were asking and answering questions, I couldn’t really pay attention; I was too hypnotised by that image of MOUNTAINS ON PLUTO, and it hit me then just how far we had come in just a handful of days…


And that was a close up of only one teeny tiny part of the surface, down there near the bottom of the disc…


In the days and weeks ahead the NH team will release more and more images with that resolution, slowly creating a mosaic of the surface of Pluto in quite ridiculous detail. Discoveries will be made on those images, people will Find Things that will make history and change science, forever. And we can all join in, by viewing the images on the NASA and NH websites and speculating too.

Here’s the highest resolution version of the “mountains” pic I could find…

nh-pluto-surface-scale NASA

And after a bit of tinkering…

nh-pluto-surface-scale v2crop

Stunning, just stunning. I went to bed with visions of Pluto’s mountains in my head that night, I can tell you…

Yesterday set out as being a “rest day” for those of us following the NH mission. No image release was planned, but after an outcry on Twitter and Facebook from people who were besotted with the mission, an image mysteriously appeared… no connection I’m sure… πŸ˜‰


This time we were shown a close-up of part of the surface of Sharon, showing lots of craters (planetary scientists love craters, they’re great for helping calculate the age of a body and for unravelling the story of its past) and a lot of speculation has followed about that strange “sunken mountain” up at the top there, but I won’t go into that now cos we’re about ten minutes away from the start of today’s media briefing and I have to log on to NASA TV. More later, with whatever new surprises and wonders the NH team shares with us!

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