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Newest photos of Pluto’s tinier moons reveal a red jelly-bean satellite

Pluto's moons Nix and Hydra as photographed by the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)

The latest photos from the July 14 Pluto flyby were released by NASA on Tuesday, and the dwarf planet's moons are looking decidedly less pixelated than they did in their first public appearance.

[NASA’s spacecraft made it to Pluto. So what happens now?]

Now we can gaze upon Nix and Hydra, the second and third of Pluto's five moons to be discovered. Charon, the largest moon, is no more mysterious to us than Pluto is -- it's half the size of its host planet, giving it the biggest moon-to-host ratio in the entire solar system, so we've already got some pretty stellar images of Charon.

But Nix and Hydra are about 26 and 34 miles long, respectively. They're also much further away from Pluto than Charon is, so the New Horizons spacecraft could only get a distant glimpse at them as it sped by into the Kuiper Belt.

[New images of Pluto’s moons hint at unusual behavior]

But these new photos are more than just blobs: Scientists are already using them to try to make conclusions about the tiny moons.

(Side note: This kind of on-the-fly planetary science -- based on data we'll receive bit by bit for the next 16 months -- is a rare opportunity to see scientists make immediate conjectures and talk about them publicly. So enjoy it but also maybe keep in mind that the next batch of photos could completely contradict the assumptions made previously.)

One day after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft confirmed that it made it to Pluto, mission specialists unveiled stunning, close-up images of the dwarf planet. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

Hydra, previously described on this very blog as being shaped like a "space spud," now resembles the state of Michigan -- at least according to NASA scientists. It's estimated to be 34 miles long and 25 miles wide, with at least a couple craters and some color differences that hint at variations in the composition of Hydra's surface.

The itty-bitty Nix, jelly-belly of a moon that it is, looks to be about 26 miles long and 22 miles wide. As you may have noticed, it's kind of red. That's unexpected!

“Additional compositional data has already been taken of Nix, but is not yet downlinked," mission scientist Carly Howett said in a statement. "It will tell us why this region is redder than its surroundings. This observation is so tantalizing, I’m finding it hard to be patient for more Nix data to be downlinked.”

The team already thinks it can make out a bulls-eye pattern around the gray moon's red spot, so its guess is that it's some kind of impact crater.

And don't forget Pluto's even more obscure moons: Humankind should see its first photos of Styx and Kerberos sometime in October.

Read More:

Pluto’s surface? Surprisingly full of mountains and lacking craters

Scientists are speculating that Charon’s dark spot is ice from Pluto

Graphic: See the Pluto portrait 85 years in the making

New data reveals that Pluto’s heart is broken

Finally, here are the stunning pictures of Pluto NASA has waited a decade to capture