Beyond the rocky planets of our inner solar system and the gaseous giants of its outer reaches, lies the Kuiper Belt, a massive and unexplored area of space littered with chunks of rock, metal, and frozen volatiles of methane, ammonia, and water. Within this mysterious area of space is Pluto, the dwarf planet which has been virtually invisible until now.
NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft is taking a magnificent new look at the Pluto system and is set to meet this dwarf planet and its moons in the summer of 2015. Equipped with the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), this onboard telescope has been capturing spectacular movies of Pluto and its largest moon Charon. The 12 images (above) that make of this ground breaking compilation were taken between July 19th – 24th, from a distance of 267 million miles (429 million kilometers). Charon, the largest of Pluto’s five moons, is approximately 1,207 kilometers in diameter and orbits at approximately 11,200 miles (18,000 kilometers) above the dwarf planet’s surface.
Pluto’s other four satellites, Nix, Hydra, Styx, and Kerberos, are still too faint to be seen by New Horizon but will soon appear in images over the course of the next year as the craft approaches the Plutonian system.
These images mark the first look at the distant orbiting body, shedding new light on the virtually unknown entity. “The image sequence showing Charon revolving around Pluto set a record for close range imaging,” said New Horizon’s mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern to NASA. “We will smash that record again and again starting in January as approach operations begin.”
Distant encounter operations begin on January 4th, 2015 as New Horizon approaches Pluto. As the craft draws closer to the Kuiper Belt, scientist will get a new perspective on the history and chemical composition of our solar system as well as a deeper look onto this virtually unknown world.
“New Horizons Spies Charon Orbiting Pluto” published on August 7, 2014 by John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.