Back in April, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sent home the first-ever image of Pluto in near-true color. It was pixelated and tiny, but for the first time humans got a glimpse of what the dwarf planet might really look like. Now NASA has released the first moving color images, showing that Pluto and its largest moon Charon have very different colors -- even though they're locked in a close orbital dance.
“It’s exciting to see Pluto and Charon in motion and in color," New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said in a statement. “Even at this low resolution, we can see that Pluto and Charon have different colors—Pluto is beige-orange, while Charon is grey. Exactly why they are so different is the subject of debate.”
A recent study using images from the Hubble found that several of Pluto's smaller moons seem to be similar to Charon in reflectivity --which suggests they might have been formed from the same material, or even by the same event -- but that at least one of the moons, Kerberos, is very dark in comparison. As we get closer and closer to the edge of our solar system, scientists will be able to make more informed guesses about how Pluto got its moons and what they're made of.
The new images came from several photographs taken from May 29 to June 3. In the animation at the top of the post, we're given a Pluto-centric view, where Pluto's position is fixed so we can see how Charon moves in relation to it. But NASA also processed a barycentric view, which shows how the dwarf and its moon truly move around the fixed point they orbit in tandem.
As the spacecraft comes closer to its July 14 flyby with Pluto, New Horizons continues to tease at the beautiful detailed images we have to look forward to. If all goes well, by mid-July we'll have images of Pluto that rival those we have of Earth in terms of clarity and resolution. The dwarf planet won't be so mysterious anymore.