The New Horizons spacecraft is now officially en route to Pluto. Technically it's been en route for about nine years and several billion miles, but on Tuesday its team confirmed that the probe had entered its "encounter sequence" -- the set of commands that will carry it through its July 14 encounter with Pluto and the day or so afterwards.
This is where the real science starts.
On Tuesday, NASA released a new map of the dwarf planet. It shows the side of the planet we'll glimpse during July 14th's flyby, as photographed from June 27 to July 3 by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Data from another instrument has been added to show the surface in true color.
Earlier color images showed dark spots -- very uniform in size and spacing -- along one side of Pluto's equator. The new map gives us a closer look: On the left, there's a dark splotch, informally known as "the whale," measuring some 1,860 miles long. It's one of the darkest things yet spotted on Pluto.
"We’re at the 'man in the moon’ stage of viewing Pluto," John Spencer, deputy leader of the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at the Southwest Research Institute at Boulder, Colo., said in a statement. "It’s easy to imagine you’re seeing familiar shapes in this bizarre collection of light and dark features. However, it’s too early to know what these features really are."
The whale is diving into a particularly bright spot near the middle of the map, which is about 990 miles across. According to a statement from NASA, this may be a patch of relatively fresh frost on the dwarf planet's surface.
Meanwhile, the whale's tail is cradling a bright "donut" (I feel like an inner-tube would make more sense, but I won't begrudge NASA their sweet-toothed-space-whale) that's about 200 miles across.
And then there are the mysterious spots (because apparently every dwarf planet needs some mysterious spots). There are four of them sitting to the right of the map, each hundreds of miles wide.
NASA scientists are holding off on making any assumptions about these spots -- or any of the features they've glimpsed -- because at this resolution its truly impossible to say what they are. Luckily, that's going to change very soon.