Science Space

Pluto images reveal intriguing bright spot near pole

Check out the best images yet of the dwarf planet Pluto.

The moving images of Pluto and its Texas-sized moon Charon you see below were taken by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which has spent nine years on a high-speed journey to the outer reaches of the solar system.

They are just marginally better than the previous best images of Pluto collected by the Hubble Space Telescope, but this is the first time that New Horizons has been able to make out distinct features on the surface of this distant body.


"The images you see are my 'Meet Pluto moment,'" said Alan Stern, principal investigator on the mission. "It was actually a little bit emotional, if I'm allowed to say that."

Especially tantalizing to Stern and his team is the highly reflective area around one of the dwarf planet's pole. (It's the bright white area in the 3 o'clock position in the image). 

"We can only say that it is very suspiciously suggestive of a polar cap," Stern said. "That could be very exciting."


He said it will still be a few months until New Horizons flies close enough to Pluto to determine exactly whether it is indeed frozen ices that are causing the bright spot, or whether it is perhaps something else.

As you watch the moving images, it may look a bit as though Pluto is tumbling, and that it is not a perfectly spherical shape. Actually, Pluto is pretty close to a sphere. Hal Weaver, project scientist for New Horizons, explains that what you are seeing is the bright and dark patches rotating into and out of view.

"When the dark patches are in view, it will look like a piece is eaten out of the image and it looks nonspherical," he said.

It should also be noted that the dwarf planet rotates almost on its side, like Uranus or a rotisserie chicken. 

These black and white pictures were collected over four days in mid-April when the spacecraft was still 60 million miles away from its destination. Stern said the quality of the images will get significantly better in the coming weeks. However, the very best pictures of Pluto won't come until the middle of July when New Horizons will fly just 7,700 miles from the surface.

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