Get an all-around view of Pluto and Charon

Pluto views
An array of images shows Pluto from all sides, as seen by NASA’s New Horizons probe over the course of one full Plutonian day (6.4 Earth days) from July 7 to 13. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The bright heart of Pluto has been burned into our consciousness, thanks to scads of high-resolution pictures. But a new set of images from NASA’s New Horizons mission provides an all-around view of the dwarf planet, including the splotchy shapes that went out of view days before the time of closest approach on July 14.

Another 10-picture set shows Pluto’s biggest moon, Charon, from all sides.

The imagery was captured over the course of a full Plutonian day, which is 6.4 Earth days long. New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager and the Ralph / Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera were trained on the icy worlds as the distance to Pluto decreased from 5 million miles on July 7 to 400,000 miles on July 13.

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Pluto probe sees evidence of ice volcanoes

Image: Piccard Mons
A color-coded topographical map, based on New Horizons data, shows Piccard Mons on the surface of Pluto. The mountain’s structure suggests that it’s an ice volcano. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Scientists with NASA’s New Horizons mission say that at least a couple of the miles-high mountains on Pluto look as if they’re ice-belching volcanoes, providing further evidence that the dwarf planet is geologically active.

Although the case for cryovolcanoes isn’t yet rock-solid, it’s the “least weird explanation” for the observations of 2-mile-high Wright Mons and 3-5-mile-high Piccard Mons, said Oliver White of NASA’s Ames Research Center, a member of the mission’s geology team.

If the mountains’ status is confirmed, “that would be one of the most phenomenal discoveries of New Horizons,” White told reporters. “Whatever they are, they’re definitely weird.”

Image: Wright Mons
Like Piccard Mons, Wright Mons has a summit depression that suggests it’s an ice volcano on Pluto. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Pluto’s potential status as a volcanic world was just one of the revelations that came to light on Monday during a review of New Horizons’ latest discoveries at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Md.

“The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down,” Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release about the findings.

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Pluto’s dog-bone moon poses a puzzle

This image of Kerberos was created by combining four individual images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager that were captured on July 14, approximately seven hours before the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto, at a range of 245,600 miles (396,100 kilometers) from Kerberos. The image has bee processed to recover the highest possible resolution. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA’s New Horizons probe has finally filled out its family portrait of Pluto and its moons – and Kerberos, the last moon to get its closeup, turns out to be nothing like what scientists expected.

Before the piano-sized spacecraft’s July flyby, an analysis of Kerberos’ gravitational influence on Pluto’s four other moons suggested that it had some heft. But the fact that it was so dim led the mission team to conclude it must have a dark surface. Otherwise, why would an object so large reflect so little light?

It turns out that Kerberos is almost as tiny as Pluto’s smallest moon, Styx. Like Styx, Kerberos’ surface appears to consist of relatively clean water ice, making it bright enough to reflect about half of the sunlight it receives.

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Find the people in the ‘Pluto Time’ picture

"Pluto Time" mosaic
A mosaic showing the New Horizons probe’s view of Pluto is made up of thousands of images sent in by fans of the “Pluto Time” project. The tiny red box near the center highlights a picture of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh. (Credit: NASA / JPL)

During the buildup to the big Pluto flyby in July, the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission launched a campaign to show regular folks what time of day during earthly twilight was as bright as high noon on the dwarf planet – and asked them to send in their “Pluto Time” selfies. Now those pictures have been assembled into mosaics that show off the shades of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

If you look closely at the blown-up view of Pluto, you’ll find a bonus: a portrait of Clyde Tombaugh, the self-taught astronomer who discovered the dwarf planet in 1930.

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Science gives Pluto its day in the sun

Image: Pluto's edge
NASA’s New Horizons probe captured this backlit image of Pluto as it flew past the dwarf planet on July 14. Scattered sunlight reveals numerous haze layers within Pluto’s thin atmosphere, while the surprisingly diverse surface landscape indicates ongoing geological activity. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The first peer-reviewed scientific paper about the New Horizons probe’s July flyby past Pluto lays out puzzling evidence that suggests the dwarf planet isn’t frozen in time. Rather, its smooth plains, high mountains and nitrogen glaciers are leading the NASA mission’s researchers to suspect that it’s geologically active even now.

“Pluto’s still got an engine, and it’s still running,” principal investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute told journalists in advance of the paper’s publication today by the journal Science.

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Pluto pics reveal blue glow – and water ice

Image: Blue Pluto
A picture from NASA’s New Horizons probe reveals the blue color of Pluto’s atmospheric haze, as seen in a backlit view. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The latest pictures from NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto reveal for the first time that the backlit dwarf planet is surrounded by a beautiful blue glow – and also pinpoint the location of water ice deposits exposed on the surface.

Thursday’s images were released after a hubbub that suggested an “amazing” discovery would be revealed this week. Although the hype got a bit out of control, the revelations really do raise intriguing questions about Pluto’s weather and geology.

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Universe Today

New Horizons mission picks post-Pluto target

Image: New Horizons and KBO
An artist’s conception shows the New Horizons spacecraft flying past a Pluto-like object in the Kuiper Belt, the ring of icy material that lies billions of miles away from the sun. (Credit: Alex Parker / NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

NASA and the science team behind the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond have settled on the popular choice for the spacecraft’s next flyby: It’s 2014 MU69, an icy object a billion miles beyond Pluto that’s thought to be less than 30 miles (45 kilometers) wide.


Some of Pluto’s names may not fly

Image: Pluto
The heart-shaped area that’s prominent in this New Horizons picture of Pluto is known as Tombaugh Regio. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Some of the best-known names on Pluto — ranging from the Sputnik plains to the Hillary and Norgay mountains and the dark Cthulhu Regio — may never appear on the International Astronomical Union’s maps, due to a tiff over terminology.

Those are just a few of the informal names that have raised questions from members of the IAU panel charged with approving the nomenclature for the dwarf planet’s geographical features. The names were selected by the team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto after a months-long online naming campaign at

“Frankly, we would have preferred that the New Horizons team had approached us before putting all these informal names everywhere,” said Rosaly Lopes, a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is a member of the IAU’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.

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