The dark spots have left Nasa scientists baffled due to their specific size and precise spacing. “It will be as if Pluto were illuminated from behind by a trillion-watt light bulb”, said Randy Gladstone, a New Horizons scientist from Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.
New Horizons will be just 12,500 Km above Pluto on July 14, precisely at 11.49 GMT but will be too busy performing a variety of other pre-programmed tasks to send back any images then.
As of Wednesday, New Horizons is just over 10 million miles from Pluto. While Pluto appears a cross between beige and orange, its large moon Charon is gray, a phenomenon Stern said is also puzzling. See the photos illustrating that difference below. The images of Charon show that the moon has a dark polar region, with lower latitudes that vary in brightness. The decision on whether to keep the spacecraft on its original course or adopt a Safe Haven by Other Trajectory, or “SHBOT” path, had to be made this week since the last opportunity to maneuver New Horizons onto an alternate trajectory is July 4.
After passing Pluto, New Horizons will follow the earlier Voyager probes into deep space. The spacecraft is still using its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager to snap pictures of the planetary system and recently used its Ralph instrument, an infrared spectrometer, to confirm the presence of frozen methane on the dwarf planet. Its name also honors Percival Lowell, who first caught hints of Pluto’s existence in 1905 and whose initials are the first two letters of Pluto.
The spacecraft needs to be accurate in its calculations to pass past Pluto and its moons.
Tyler, Linscott and a team of Stanford scientists and graduate students spent years developing REX and its operating software before New Horizons launched in 2006. That’s exciting news for any space enthusiast, and as New Horizons draws closer and closer, we can’t help but wonder what it will find next.
“Not finding new moons or rings present is a bit of a scientific surprise to most of us”, Stern said.
New Horizons is now less than 9.5 million miles from the Pluto system. As New Horizons passes behind Pluto, Earth-based stations are set to beam radio waves toward the fast-moving spacecraft. Plus, he says, once we see close-up images of Pluto it will be really hard for us not to think of it as a planet.
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