New Horizons spots whale and donut on Pluto

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

The newest images of Pluto collected by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have revealed yet more unusual-looking features on the dwarf planet, including an elongated dark band called “the whale” and a bright, donut-shaped patch located near this object’s “tail.”

According to BBC News, the latest images were captured between June 27 and July 3 using the probe’s high-resolution black-and-while Lorri instrument and its lower-resolution, color imaging Ralph camera. The features are located along Pluto’s equator.

In a statement, New Horizons scientists said the center of the images corresponds to the side of Pluto that will be visible during the spacecraft’s flyby of the dwarf planet on Tuesday, July 14. The area known as the whale is one of the darkest regions visible to the probe, and measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length along the left side of the pictures.

“We’re at the ‘man in the moon’ stage of viewing Pluto,” said John Spencer deputy leader of the Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado. “It’s easy to imagine you’re seeing familiar shapes in this bizarre collection of light and dark features. However, it’s too early to know what these features really are.”

Breaking down the features in the latest Pluto images

Located to the right of the whale’s “snout” is the brightest region visible on Pluto. This area is approximately 990 miles (1,600 kilometers) across, and could be home to relatively fresh frost deposits, potentially including frozen methane, nitrogen, and/or carbon monoxide.

To the right of the whale are the four mysterious dark spots that have captured the attention of people all over the world, each of which are several hundred miles across. At the left end of the whale is its “tail,” which cradles the 200-mile (350 kilometer) long donut-shaped feature.

“At first glance it resembles circular features seen elsewhere in the solar system, from impact craters to volcanoes, but scientists are holding off on making any interpretation of this and other features on Pluto until more detailed images are in hand,” the New Horizons team said, adding that higher-resolution images coming up will allow scientists to make more accurate maps of the dwarf planet’s surface.

As of Wednesday, New Horizons was less than 4.7 million miles (7.5 million kilometers) from Pluto, according to BBC News. The flyby will take place on the 50th anniversary of the Mariner 4 spacecraft’s flyby of Mars, and the new probe will be collecting nearly 5,000 times as much data at Pluto than Mariner did at Mars.


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