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New Horizons Spacecraft Sent Back First Ever Color Photo of Pluto and Charon

Pluto and Charon

Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Pluto and Charon as seen from New Horizons with a color imager on April 9, 2015.

Although the image above is not so clear, it is actually the first color photograph of Pluto and Charon captured by the spacecraft –New Horizons when it is recently flying over the icy worlds.

It is difficult to take the clear images of these two planets at this point, because, on one hand, the Spacecraft is still three months away from them, on the other, the far distance from  the sun makes little light to be reflected.

Up to now, it is the first time for the Ralph color imager of NASA to send back the images which are black and white, even if with the distance of 115 million kilometers from the target system.

The images captured here do not have symbolic value. Being different from exploitations of Mars, Saturn, or even Ceres, New Horizons is not stopping to orbit. It is not practical to decelerate for a craft, which is moving around at the speed of nearly 50,000 kph , especially considering the Pluto’s small gravity, which is one-fifteenth that of Earth’s—to catch it. Therefore, it is necessary to gather as much information as possible within the limited time when New Horizons flies by.

In order to fulfill such task, New Horizons is controlled to concentrate on observations when it is at the closest sighting so as to send back the data collected at a much easier pace afterwards. The last thing mission control likes to do is to temporally stop operations to modify plans, in regard to the four hours it takes for messages coming over with the speed of light to reach Pluto. As a result, the images gathered on the approach are being applied to planning the exact path the craft would follow, which could be culminated in a flyby of 12,500 kilometers from Pluto’s surface.

As Alice Bowman of JohnsHopkinsUniversity said, their team has been making great efforts to reach this point, and they knew that they had only one shot to complete it.

In the eyes of Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), it was kind of pure exploration, in which they were intended to turn points of light into a planet and a system of moons.

However, the focus of interest has been much changed, because New Horizons was launched from Pluto towards its moons. It is clear that there are multiple moons to be looked at. As early as in 2001, Charon was the only moon known to us when the craft was put into operation. Later on from 2005 to 2012, another four were found together with a quasi-satellite, which was trapped in orbit temporarily.

In addition, with time moving on, Charon has aroused more interests around it. In the words of Leslie Young from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Charon was sort of rising star in terms of scientific interest, and scientists could not wait until July to fully reveal its details. The reason that Charon had been given the renewed attention is attributed to the theory, speculating that it might have had an underground ocean, because cracks on its surface could show its traces.


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