At last! After spending 9.5 years traveling 3 billion miles to reach Pluto, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has snapped an image of the dwarf planet that bears tantalizing hints of geologic features that will become clearer in the coming days.
Until now, little has been known about what the ex-planet's surface might look like. But recent images from the spacecraft have revealed a number of strange features, including a giant, pale "heart" stamped across the surface and a dark region nicknamed the "whale" for its distinctive shape. The whale's tail, meanwhile, cradles a bright, round feature dubbed the "doughnut."
This latest image, taken Thursday at a distance of 3.3 million miles and released the next day, brings those details into slightly sharper relief and reveals several more surprises.
"Among the structures tentatively identified in this new image are what appear to be polygonal features; a complex band of terrain stretching east-northeast across the planet, approximately 1,000 miles long; and a complex region where bright terrains meet the dark terrains of the whale," Alan Stern, New Horizons' principal investigator, said in a statement. "After nine and a half years in flight, Pluto is well worth the wait."
This and other recent images come as a welcome reward several days after a computer glitch temporarily sent the spacecraft into safe mode. Scientists reacted with jubilation in the control room Friday morning when the most recent image came down, showing some never-before-seen surface features.
"We're close enough now that we're just starting to see Pluto's geology," said New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur, who has taken a particular interest in the gray region above the whale's "tail," in a statement.
"It's a unique transition region with a lot of dynamic processes interacting, which makes it of particular scientific interest," he added.
The mission's rendezvous with Pluto is set to bring New Horizons to within 6,200 miles of the dwarf planet's surface on July 14, before the spacecraft heads farther out into space and toward the Kuiper Belt, the distant ring of icy debris that scientists think is the birthplace of comets.