New Horizons spacecraft is now only three months away from its historic sweep through the Pluto-Charon system in mid-July. First image in color!
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft acquired its first picture of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in color on April 9. It’s the first color image ever made of the Pluto system by a spacecraft on approach. Neither Pluto nor Charon is well resolved here, but their distinctly different appearances can already be seen. Image via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft team released this tantalizing first color image of Pluto and its Texas-sized moon Charon. The team called this image a preliminary reconstruction, which they said will be refined later. The spacecraft acquired the image from a distance of about 71 million miles (115 million kilometers)-roughly the distance from the sun to Venus. New Horizons is now only three months from its historic encounter with Pluto. The flyby through the Pluto system will take place on July 14, at which time the spacecraft will deliver color images that eventually show surface features as small as a few miles across.
New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched and may be the only spacecraft to sweep past Pluto in our lifetimes. It has traveled a longer time and farther away – more than nine years and three billion miles (4.8 billion km) – than any space mission in history to reach the Pluto system, which consists of the dwarf planet and its five known moons.
NASA pointed out that New Horizons’ flyby of the Pluto system on July 14 will:
… complete the initial reconnaissance of the classical solar system. This mission also opens the door to an entirely new ‘third’ zone of mysterious small planets and planetary building blocks in the Kuiper Belt, a large area with numerous objects beyond Neptune’s orbit.
Principal investigator Alan Stern said the mission would mark the first up-close look at a binary planet. He called Pluto a binary because its large moon Charon is so nearly like Pluto in size.
Between now and July 14, New Horizons will get closer and closer to Pluto and its moons, and the image quality will rapidly improve. At closest approach, New Horizons will sweep through the Pluto system at a speed of 30,000 mph (50,000 kilometers per hour).
Source : EarthSky.org