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New Horizons spies the 'heart' of Pluto as flyby begins

David Dickinson, Correspondent
Jul 9, 2015, 21:34 UTC

Sen—Pluto is snapping into focus, as scientists and engineers resumed operations this week after an anomaly briefly put New Horizons in safe mode this past weekend.

The view in the main image was snapped by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a distance of 8 million km (5 million miles), or about 20 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Keep in mind, at this range, Pluto still appears only 1/20th as large as a Full Moon does from the Earth. Moving at a speed of over 8 miles a second, New Horizons will bridge the gap in just under five days now for a pass 12,500 km (7,767 miles) from the surface of Pluto on July 14 at 11:50 UTC (7:50 AM EDT).

This is also the first image sent back to Earth since the spacecraft was revived from safe mode. A dark feature, informally dubbed “the whale,” can be seen on the lower left limb of Pluto, along with a bright heart-shaped plain that has already captivated millions.

It is as if Pluto is welcoming us. This observation is especially crucial, as Pluto is tidally locked with its large moon Charon, and spins on its axis once every 6.4 Earth days. This means we are currently looking roughly at the hemisphere of Pluto that New Horizons will see on closest approach.

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The latest map of Pluto, combining images from New Horizon's LORRI camera. Note that we're currently seeing the northern hemisphere facing of Pluto down to latitude 15 degrees south. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

“The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today,” Geology and Geophysics Team leader of NASA’s Ames Research Center Jeff Moore said in a recent press release.

What are those bright and dark patches? What gives Pluto that orange tint? Is Pluto active, with ice geysers and cryovolcanoes? We’re also seeing some correlation between the features now being seen by New Horizons and images snapped by Hubble over the past decade.

And there is more to come. It is strange to think, after having the same dozen-odd blurry photos and artist’s conceptions to choose from, that new and better pictures of Pluto are now released daily.

Don’t miss history being made over the next week!