What’s it like to fly past Pluto? Now we’re finding out

17 Jul 2017

Pluto. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

NASA has revealed a video of its New Horizons mission to Pluto, composed of the myriad of images secured during its 2015 flyby.

What’s it like to fly past Pluto? No human has ever done it. To date, only one spacecraft has: New Horizons, as of two years ago this month.

That mission helped to fill in one or two gaps in humanity’s knowledge of our solar system, with imagery of the dwarf planet capturing the zeitgeist for a few summer weeks.

Future Human

Most notably, the scientific community and the general public fell in love with Pluto’s enormous, heart-shaped icy plain, informally known as Tombaugh Regio, after Pluto’s discoverer.

Now, using actual New Horizons data and digital elevation models, mission scientists have created flyover movies of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

Dramatic flyover

NASA claims the video offers us “a new perspective” of Pluto, given that the imagery allowed for a film that gets closer to the dwarf planet’s surface than New Horizons ever did.

“This dramatic Pluto flyover begins over the highlands to the south-west of the great expanse of nitrogen ice plain informally named Sputnik Planitia,” said NASA.

Also featured are the dark, cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula, the rugged and fractured highlands of Voyager Terra, the pits of Pioneer Terra, and the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa.

According to New Horizons data released late last year, ‘Pluto’s Heart’ may hold an excitingly vast ocean of slushy water ice.

If a thick, heavy ocean does lie beneath the heart-shaped surface, the resulting ‘gravitational anomaly’ would be enough to pull Pluto’s moon into alignment over millions of years.

This would explain why the Tombaugh Regio aligns almost exactly opposite from Charon.

Charon gets its own video treatment, too.

Descends over the deep

“The equally exciting flight over Charon begins high over the hemisphere New Horizons saw on its closest approach, then descends over the deep, wide canyon of Serenity Chasma,” said NASA.

“The view moves north, passing over Dorothy Gale crater and the dark polar hood of Mordor Macula.

“The flight then turns south, covering the northern terrain of Oz Terra before ending over the relatively flat equatorial plains of Vulcan Planum and the ‘moated mountains’ of Clarke Montes.”

The mountains and cliff features are exaggerated on both the videos, so that viewers can better identify elements of Pluto and Charon, with surface colours “enhanced to bring out detail”.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic