Odds are, none of us will ever be able to actually land on Pluto, but thanks to NASA, we’re now able to virtually experience what it would be like to touch down on the dwarf planet due to a new video created using more than 100 images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015.
The footage, which was compiled using photographs taken by the New Horizons probe during its six week approach, begins with a distant view of the dwarf planet and its largest moon, Charon, and ends with a soft landing in the region of Pluto’s highly-reflective, ice-covered region known as Sputnik Planitia.
“To create a movie that makes viewers feel as if they’re diving into Pluto, mission scientists had to interpolate some of the panchromatic (black and white) frames based on what they know Pluto looks like to make it as smooth and seamless as possible,” NASA explained in a press release.
They then took low-resolution color from the spacecraft’s Ralph telescope and draped it over the frames to create the best available, real-color simulation of what someone would see if they were preparing to land on the Trans-Neptunian object, which was discovered by US astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and was previously thought to be the solar system’s ninth planet.
Footage just the latest data from the New Horizons probe
New Horizons launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in January 2006 and arrived at Pluto in July 2015, completing a nearly 10-year, three billion mile-long journey. Using powerful cameras which NASA said was powerful enough to spot surface features smaller than a football field, the spacecraft collected several hundred images of the dwarf planet and its moons.
It also collected a wealth of data during its historic July 2015 flyby of the Pluto system. In fact, the probe’s scientific instruments gathered so much information during its 400-plus observations that it only just finished transmitting it back to NASA scientists a few months ago, with the final data sent back via downlink to the Deep Space Network facility in Australia in October.
“The Pluto system data that New Horizons collected has amazed us over and over again with the beauty and complexity of Pluto and its system of moons,” principal investigator Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said at the time in a press release.
In all, New Horizons transmitted more than 50 gigabits of data, nearly 100 times more than the probe was able to transmit before leaving the Pluto system. It had been programmed to send back the highest-priority data first, using a connection that topped out at just 2,000 bits per second – or about the same speed as a modem from the 1980s, according to NASA.
Next up for the spacecraft is a voyage into the Kuiper Belt, where it will complete a flyby of a tiny object known as 2014 MU69. Stern said that he and his colleagues were “excited” about the upcoming mission, which is set to begin on January 1, 2019. The target was selected in August 2015, and following a series of course changes that October and November, the probe is now en route to 20 to 30-mile big object.
Image credit: NASA JPL