A Pluto family photo is how NASA describes the new stunning images of the dwarf planet captured by the New Horizons Spacecraft.
In February, New Horizons sent the first images of the dwarf planet and its giant moon, Charon. The significant event helped celebrate the 109th birthday of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. His daughter, Annette Tombaugh, expressed her excitement.
“My dad would be thrilled with New Horizons. To actually see the planet that he had discovered, and find out more about it — to get to see the moons of Pluto — he would have been astounded. I’m sure it would have meant so much to him if he were still alive today.”
At that time, New Horizons was more than 126 million mile away, and the images were just a group of bright lights. Now, NASA is within reach of the dwarf planet and all its moons, and we have the first Pluto family photo shared by the space agency.
Aside from Charon — which was discovered in July of 2013 — Pluto’s smaller moons, Hydra and Nix, were spotted for the first time in July of 2014 and January of 2015, respectively. New Horizons captured Kerberos and Styx — Pluto’s smallest and least defined moons — for the first time ever.
“New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery,” said mission science team member John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, according to NASA. “If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before.”
“Kerberos and Styx were discovered in 2011 and 2012, respectively, by New Horizons team members using the Hubble Space Telescope. Styx, circling Pluto every 20 days between the orbits of Charon and Nix, is likely just 4 to 13 miles (approximately 7 to 21 kilometers) in diameter, and Kerberos, orbiting between Nix and Hydra with a 32-day period, is just 6 to 20 miles (approximately 10 to 30 kilometers) in diameter. Each is 20 to 30 times fainter than Nix and Hydra.”
The Pluto family photo includes Kerberos and Styx and was taken by the New Horizons’ most sensitive camera, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), between April 25 and May 1, NASA says. The amazing images had to be extensively processed to reduce the glare from the very bright dwarf planet and its moon, Charon.
“Detecting these tiny moons from a distance of more than 55 million miles is amazing, and a credit to the team that built our LORRI long-range camera and John Spencer’s team of moon and ring hunters,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute.
The new Pluto family photo will be one of many that astronomers will be looking at in the near future as they continue to study previously unexplored areas of space.
[Image via JustV23/DeviantArt]