As New Horizons spacecraft nears Pluto, scientists eagerly await for new data on the dwarf planet. The latest feast for the eyes is a series of photos taken by the probe early this month.
The images show that the dwarf planet is far more complex than scientific literature had depicted it. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission said that the planet has a “complex surface” with bright and dark areas at the Equator and a bright region at one of its poles, which researchers suspect it represents an ice cap.
Between May 29 and June 2, the spacecraft took four high-resolution photos that showed different aspects of Pluto because they caught the planet during its 6.4-day rotational period.
“We can also see that every face of Pluto is different, and that Pluto’s northern hemisphere displays substantial dark terrains,”
Mr. Stern explained. He described as an “emerging puzzle” the distribution of both the brightest and darkest areas of the planet’s surface in the equatorial region.
One of the pictures puzzled even more scientists because it depicted the planet as non-spherical. Yet, they explained that that was just an optical illusion caused by image processing methods
The photos were taken at distances of 31 million miles to 34 million miles. Currently, New Horizons is 24 million miles away from the dwarf planet and it is expected to reach its destination in one month.
On July 14, New Horizons should perform its historic flyby of the dwarf planet. So, at that point photos should look a lot sharper leaving less room for imagination. At the moment, the spacecraft’s piano-sized optical instrument dubbed LORRI beams low-res images on a daily basis.
Space fans have already interpreted some features, or shadows, in the pictures as signs of artifacts of an alien civilization. Last year, people speculated over a couple of fuzzy images of the planet that they were evidence of “activity on the planet.”
Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society even joked that some dark lines on the planet’s surface could mark canali built by “an alien civilization” designed to carry “valuable liquids across the Plutonian surface.” But the next month’s flyby may also prove that that was just excess imagination.
NASA plans to start streaming video updates on June 16, at 11:30 a.m. E.T. on it website and NASA Television, and continue on June 23 and 30.
Starting July 7, TV updates would be made daily, while on July 14 NASA will stream live the historic flyby from 7:00 a.m. ET. Because there’s 3 billion-mile distance between Pluto and Earth, the TV signal will be delayed by four and a half hours, NASA explained.