NASA has published up-close images from the New Horizons space probe that flew by Pluto yesterday.
The images, which the probe captured and transmitted back to Earth, are the closest we've (or at least the probe) has come to the dwarf planet in space exploration history: "Yesterday, America's space program took another historic leap for humankind," NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown explained.
The New Horizons team, he added, is now bringing what was previously a "blurred point of light into focus". Some of the first images from the probe have depicted blurry, round spots in space, but as the probe goes farther and father into space, the images are coming back clearer and clearer.
By Tuesday, we could see the Pluto's surface and its largest moon. And this is just the beginning. NASA said there will be 16-months worth of data and images sent from the probe to Earth.
What is New Horizons?
New Horizons is an interplanetary space probe built by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched it in 2006 as part of the New Frontiers program, with the purpose of studying Pluto, its moons, and the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons was intended to pass within 7,800 miles (12,500 km) of Pluto, and it's closest approach happened 14 July. It also came as close as 17,900 miles (28,800 km) to Charon, the largest of Pluto's five known moons. The probe took roughly nine years to reach Pluto and is now heading in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.
Radio signals have been taking about four and a half hours to travel between the probe and Earth, and NASA has been posting the latest news and photos from the probe's flyby to its mission website.
What has NASA learned from the flyby thus far?
NASA has said that "icy mountains on Pluto and a new, crisp view of its largest moon, Charon" are among the several discoveries made by the New Horizons team - just one day after the probe's first-ever Pluto flyby.
Here's a list of some of the more interesting tidbits, according to NASA:
- New Horizons snapped an image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto, capturing a mountain range with peaks as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 metres) above the surface of the icy body.
- Scientists believe the mountains on Pluto likely formed 100 million years ago, and that the region, which covers about one per cent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active.
- Pluto has a vast, frozen, craterless plain that also appears to be no more than 100 million years old and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. It is north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature.
- Interestingly, Pluto isn't heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body, so NASA figures some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.
- Pluto has an extended atmosphere predominantly made of nitrogen that extends tens of thousands of miles beyond the dwarf planet. Also, as the solar wind interacts with Pluto, it appears that the atmosphere is being “blown back" and forming a long tail of cold, dense ionized gas up to 68,000 miles (109,000 km) long.
- Spectroscopic data from New Horizons’ Ralph instruments reveal an abundance of methane ice on Pluto, but with "striking differences among regions across the frozen surface of Pluto".
- New Horizons snapped an image of Charon, capturing its varied terrain, apparent lack of craters, a canyon estimated to be 4 to 6 miles (7 to 9 km) deep, and a swath of cliffs and troughs stretching about 600 miles (1,000 km, the latter of which suggests widespread fracturing of Charon’s crust due to internal geological processes.
- New Horizons also observed the smaller members of the Pluto system, which includes four other moons: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos.
- New Horizons snapped an image of Hydra, revealing its irregular shape and size and surface (which is probably coasted with water ice). Hydra is estimated to be about 27 by 20 miles (43 by 33 km).
Has NASA posted any photos yet?
Yes, it has - and you can see them in the gallery above.
Want to know more?
Check out Pocket-lint's NASA hub for all the latest and breaking news from the space agency.