NASA has released the first “near-true” color videos of Pluto and its largest natural satellite, Charon, captured by the New Horizons probe approaching the dwarf planet.
The two newly released videos show the complex orbital interaction of the two bodies.
According to New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern with the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), although the videos are low resolution, viewers can see the two bodies separately. The videos also show the different colors of the two bodies — Pluto being beige-orange and Charon being grey.
“It’s exciting to see Pluto and Charon in motion and in color. Even at this low resolution, we can see that Pluto and Charon have different colors—Pluto is beige-orange, while Charon is grey. Exactly why they are so different is the subject of debate.”
NASA says that New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto at a distance of 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) will occur on July 14.
New Horizons, as the name of the mission implies, is breaking new grounds in human space exploration, being the first to make the 3 billion-mile journey to Pluto and the Kuiper belt beyond the planet Neptune.
The close approach of the probe to the surface of the planet will resolve many questions about Pluto’s terrain and atmosphere. The mission will also help to shed light on the mysteries of the dwarf planet’s natural satellites or moons.
According to NASA, the color videos were created from a set of images captured May 29-June 3 by the Multicolor Visible Imaging Camera’s Ralph instrument in blue, red and near-infrared, as the New Horizons probe approached Pluto.
The two videos show the Pluto-Charon system from different perspectives, although they were created using the same set of images.
The first video shows Charon from the perspective of its orbital motion around Pluto (“Pluto-centric”) while the second video shows the binary system in motion around a common center of gravity known as the barycenter.
From the “barycentric” perspective, we see Pluto much closer to the barycenter (marked “x” in the video) because it is more massive than Charon. However, in the first video, we see Pluto digitally centered to bring out the perspective of Charon’s relative orbital motion.
Pluto completes one revolution around its axis in six days, nine hours and 17.6 minutes, meaning that Pluto has a much longer day than Earth.
The newly released video has a low resolution, but project scientist Cathy Olkin said NASA will release videos with improved quality as New Horizons moves closer to the surface of the dwarf planet.
“Color observations are going to get much, much better, eventually resolving the surfaces of Charon and Pluto at scales of just kilometers. This will help us unravel the nature of their surfaces and the way volatiles transport around their surfaces. I can’t wait; it’s just a few weeks away!”
Pluto, the second-most massive known dwarf planet, is the largest body in the Kuiper belt. First discovered in 1930, Pluto is made up mostly of rock and ice.
It was formerly considered the ninth planet from our Sun, but was demoted to the status of a dwarf planet in 2006 after studies confirmed that it was only one of several other icy bodies in the outer solar system smaller than the “proper” planets.
For instance, Pluto is only about one-sixth Earth’s size.
Pluto has five moons, including Charon, the largest. Others are Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. However, Pluto and Charon are sometimes considered a binary system because the barycenter of their orbital interaction does not lie within either body.
[Image: Wikimedia Commons]