As NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft draws ever closer to Pluto, the spacecraft has sent back its first somewhat-clear images of Pluto, offering yet more details on the dwarf planet.
To have any images at all at this stage is something to celebrate given that the New Horizons craft last week had something of a minor malfunction, putting it out of action and potentially jeopardising the mission.
However, after a relatively short delay, the craft has fixed itself again and, in the intervening time, NASA scientists have said, it missed just 30 observations of the planet or just 1pc of its overall mission.
Before it went down on 4 July, New Horizon’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) managed to obtain three images between 1 and 3 July that give some indication of the dwarf planet’s terrain.
According to NASA, the left image shows a large bright area on the hemisphere of Pluto that will be revealed in more detail as we approach the date of 14 July.
From the three photos obtained, however, there is the clear and unmistakable sign of the full extent of a continuous swathe of dark terrain that wraps around much of Pluto’s equatorial region.
The western end of the swathe in the right-hand side image shows that it breaks up into a series of striking, dark, regularly-spaced spots, with each one believed to be hundreds of kilometres in size.
The north of the planet appears to be equally as intriguing to NASA scientists, who highlight the bright material seen as a series of bright and dark patches that are conspicuous just below the centre of the disk in the right image.
NASA was able to make a composite image showing the planet in colour, which was added afterwards using colour data from New Horizon’s Ralph instrument.