NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent new high-resolution images of the dwarf planet Pluto, just days before its historic encounter on July 14, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on the icy distant world.
These three images, taken between 1 and 3 July by LORRI (The Long Range Reconnaissance Image), give some indication of the dwarf planet’s terrain.
The left image shows, on the right side of the disk, a large bright area on the hemisphere of Pluto that will be seen in close-up by New Horizons on July 14.
The three images together show the full extent of a continuous swath of dark terrain that wraps around much of Pluto’s equatorial region.
The western end of the swath (right image) breaks up into a series of striking dark regularly-spaced spots, each hundreds of miles in size, which were first detected in New Horizons images taken in late June.
Intriguing details are beginning to emerge in the bright material north of the dark region, in particular a series of bright and dark patches that are conspicuous just below the center of the disk in the right image.
In all three black-and-white views, the apparent jagged bottom edge of Pluto is the result of image processing. The inset shows Pluto’s orientation, illustrating its north pole, equator, and central meridian running from pole to pole.
The colour version of the July 3 LORRI image was created by adding color data from the Ralph instrument gathered earlier in the mission.
The photos were released a day before the technical glitch which caused the spacecraft to lose touch with our planet.
The computer was trying to do these two things at the same time, and the two were more than the processor could handle,”.
Said Glen Fountain.
So the processor said ‘I’m overloaded.’ Then the spacecraft did exactly what it was supposed to do. It then switched to the backup computer and … it went safe. At that point, we lost the downlink from the primary (computer).
But the spacecraft’ stuff managed to regain contact with the probe and now it’s out of safe mode.
While we prefer that this event hadn’t occurred … this is a speed bump in terms of the total return that we expect from this flyby.
Pluto and its big moon Charon already are surprising scientists with their surface appearances, “and we’re excited to get back to that.