NASA’s Pluto-bound spacecraft has spotted surface features on the dwarf planet for the first time, including a possible polar ice cap.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has returned the most detailed images of Pluto ever taken, revealing for the first time surface features on the dwarf planet and uncovering what may be a ice cap at one of its poles.
New Horizons captured the images from April 12 to 18 at a distance of less than 70 million miles away from the dwarf planet. The images were enhanced using a technique called deconvolution, which sharpens the raw images returned by the space probe.
The images released on Tuesday show Pluto and its largest moon Charon in greater detail than the best images provided by the Hubble Space Telescope. While blurry, the images offer enough resolution to detect surface features on the dwarf planet for the first time.
“New Horizons scientists interpreted the data to reveal the dwarf planet has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap,” NASA said in a statement.
“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said in a statement. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.”
Up until today, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope had produced the most detailed images of the dwarf planet to date, providing enough resolution to discern surface changes, but not enough to make out surface features like craters or mountains.
“We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer,” said Hal Weaver, the mission’s project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Launched on Jan. 19, 2006, NASA’s New Horizons probe will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto, providing the first up-close images when it arrives at dwarf planet on July 14, 2015. The probe has traveled farther and longer than any other spacecraft to reach its primary target. New Horizons will also become the second spacecraft in history to visit a dwarf planet, following behind NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which arrived in orbit around Ceres in March.