On Tuesday, NASA’s New Horizons was set to make its closest flyby with Pluto, marking our first encounter with the dwarf planet. We won’t have confirmation of the flyby until 9 p.m. Eastern, some 13 hours after its scheduled occurrence. And we won’t have pictures from the closest approach — just 7,800 miles away from Pluto — until Wednesday afternoon.
But to mark the occasion, NASA has released one more pre-flyby photo of the no-longer-mysterious dwarf planet.
In a surprising turn of events, the photo was actually released exclusively on Instagram about an hour early. We live in the future, folks.
Gorgeous Pluto! The dwarf planet has sent a love note back to Earth via our New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled more than 9 years and 3+ billion miles. This is the last and most detailed image of Pluto sent to Earth before the moment of closest approach, which was at 7:49 a.m. EDT Tuesday - about 7,750 miles above the surface -- roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India - making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. This stunning image of the dwarf planet was captured from New Horizons at about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13, about 16 hours before the moment of closest approach. The spacecraft was 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface. Images from closest approach are expected to be released on Wednesday, July 15. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI #nasa #pluto #plutoflyby #newhorizons#solarsystem #nasabeyond #science
The color image was taken on July 13 and downloaded Tuesday morning. It has a resolution of 4 kilometers per pixel, which is 1,000 times better than we could do with the Hubble Space Telescope. It's been a long journey, but we're finally at Pluto's doorstep.
North is at the top in the latest photo, so the dark bands we see are at Pluto's equator — which is no surprise, since the dark “whale” has been visible for awhile. And we've seen that bright “heart” before, too. NASA scientists are excited by Pluto's contrasting levels of brightness, because that speaks to interesting geological and atmospheric processes taking place on the planet.
Proper analysis of these photos will take some time, and we've got even better pictures coming in the next couple of days. And then there's a lot of data to look at: NASA estimates that the data gathered during the flyby will take 16 months to download in its entirety. So this may be one of our best looks at Pluto — even after Wednesday's image release — but we have a long way to go in terms of interpreting just what we're seeing.