New Horizons sees more detail as it draws closer to Pluto

May 28, 2015 by Tricia Talbert, NASA

What a difference 20 million miles makes! Images of Pluto from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft are growing in scale as the spacecraft approaches its mysterious target. The new images, taken May 8-12 using a powerful telescopic camera and downlinked last week, reveal more detail about Pluto's complex and high contrast surface. 

The images were taken from just under 50 million miles (77 million kilometers) away, using the  Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons. Because New Horizons was approximately 20 million miles closer to Pluto in mid-May than in mid-April, the new images contain about twice as many pixels on the object as images made in mid-April.

A technique called image deconvolution sharpens the raw, unprocessed pictures beamed back to Earth. In the April images, New Horizons scientists determined that Pluto has broad surface markings – some bright, some dark – including a bright area at one pole that may be a polar cap. The newer imagery released here shows finer details. Deconvolution can occasionally produce spurious details, so the finest details in these images will need confirmation from images to be made from closer range in coming weeks.

"As New Horizons closes in on Pluto, it's transforming from a point of light to a planetary object of intense interest," said NASA's Director of Planetary Science Jim Green. "We're in for an exciting ride for the next seven weeks." 

"These new images show us that Pluto's differing faces are each distinct; likely hinting at what may be very complex surface geology or variations in surface composition from place to place," added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "These images also continue to support the hypothesis that Pluto has a whose extent varies with longitude; we'll be able to make a definitive determination of the polar bright region's iciness when we get compositional spectroscopy of that region in July." 

The images New Horizons returns will dramatically improve in coming weeks as the spacecraft speeds closer to its July 14 encounter with the Pluto system, covering about 750,000 miles per day.

"By late June the image resolution will be four times better than the images made May 8-12, and by the time of closest approach, we expect to obtain with more than 5,000 times the current resolution," said Hal Weaver, the mission's project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. 

Following a January 2006 launch, New Horizons is currently about 2.95 billion miles from home; the spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally.

These images show Pluto in the latest series of New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) photos, taken May 8-12, 2015, compared to LORRI images taken one month earlier. In the month between these image sets, New Horizons’ distance to Pluto decreased from 68 million miles (110 million kilometers) to 47 million miles (75 million kilometers), as the spacecraft speeds toward a close encounter with the Pluto system in mid-July. The April images are shown on the left, with the May images on the right. All have been rotated to align Pluto’s rotational axis with the vertical direction (up-down), as depicted schematically in the center panel. Between April and May, Pluto appears to get larger as the spacecraft gets closer, with Pluto’s apparent size increasing by approximately 50 percent. Pluto rotates around its axis every 6.4 Earth days, and these images show the variations in Pluto’s surface features during its rotation. These images are displayed at four times the native LORRI image size, and have been processed using a method called deconvolution, which sharpens the original images to enhance features on Pluto. Deconvolution can occasionally add “false” details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks. All of the images are displayed using the same linear brightness scale.

Explore further: New Horizons detects surface features, possible polar cap on Pluto

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1 / 5 (8) May 28, 2015
I wonder if NASA will ever use a camera that takes clear pictures.
Steve 200mph Cruiz
4.8 / 5 (10) May 28, 2015
Where is your camera that can take a better picture from 50 million miles away in the depths of the solar system?

We haven't seen anything yet (and I think these pictures are already stunning), if you understood the article, they said that the closest approach will have 5000x the resolution of these recent pictures. These are going to be phenomenal pictures, better than I was personally thinking they would be.
I think we will find the Plutonian system is one of the jewels of the solar system, just you wait and see
Steve 200mph Cruiz
4.8 / 5 (9) May 28, 2015
Also you need to go to your local planetarium if you think NASA only takes blurry pictures
5 / 5 (7) May 28, 2015
I wonder if NASA will ever use a camera that takes clear pictures.

It's sorta dark out there...and the target is still pretty far away. It's not like taking holiday snapshots of your thumb.

The camera has to be pretty robust (has to survive liftoff), lightweight, and needs to operate under some fairly extreme environmental conditions.
With the approach the resolution will become a lot better (between 1.1 and 3.2km per pixel depending on the object).

It makes a lot of sense to try and get images as early as possible.
- it can help check on camera integrity and test new image enhancement algorithms
- data from successive images can be used for studying atmospheric flow
- data from successive images in conjunction with Pluto's rotation can be used for 3D maps of the surface
- From the reflection and the known characetristics of the camera it's probably possible to draw inferences about the types of chemistry observed
- ...
4.7 / 5 (3) May 28, 2015
wake me up when we're there !
1 / 5 (1) May 29, 2015
Poor Pluto. Demoted to a dwarf planet and now Ceres gets all the attention.
3 / 5 (2) May 30, 2015
Aunty wrote, "It's not like taking holiday snapshots of your thumb."

Aha! *That's* where NASA went wrong. We could have saved all of those billions of dollars on space research! Just 'repurpose' their missions to study thumbs! They could get *great* images!

They could even branch out and study hangnails! Then the Republicans would have nothing to complain about in NASA's budget. Everyone wins!

Except science, of course, but who cares what scientists think? They're in love with facts, and everyone knows facts have a dreadful liberal bias.

The money we'll save will be turned into more tax breaks for the rich. Gosh, the prospect of making life better for the top 1% fills me with glee, doesn't it you?
5 / 5 (1) May 30, 2015
I wonder if NASA will ever use a camera that takes clear pictures.
The New Horizon space probe has been designed as a fast light weight scouting mission to Pluto. http://pluto.jhua...ents.php A light weight vessel with a big push gave it the speed to cover the distance in less than 10 years. The optical telescope assembly (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager LORRI) weigh 8.8 kg (19.4 pounds). http://www.boulde...orri.pdf

5 / 5 (1) May 30, 2015
LORRI is more of a camera with a big telephoto lens than a telescope you could very well carry it around and use it on a tripod. Its focal length is 2630mm and its primary mirror (the light bucket) is 20.8 cm (8.2 inches), might as well say that it is a lens that has an aperture of 208mm and an f-stop of 12.64. Another particularity of LORRI is that its focal point is fixed! I used the size if a pixel 13 micron as the 'circle of confusion' at focal plane and estimated that the hyperfocal distance at around 42000km (I might be wrong, I am not an expert in optics); so for hyperfocal/2 to infinity the focus is ok. It also means that closer than 21000km this optic is not optimal. Big lens are good for low light conditions but, if you get to close you lose sharpness. http://www.dofmas...ons.html

5 / 5 (1) May 30, 2015
Regarding the image of Pluto which has a diameter of 2400km viewed from 75000000km, it is the analog of looking at a US quarter 2.4cm (around 1 inch) from 750meter away (roughly half a mile). At this distance the angular diameter of Pluto is 0.0018 degree and since the sensor is 1024 x 1024 it means that Pluto cover just 7 x 7 pixels on this sensor. Download the image and look at it: The trick to show so much details is to use a image processing technique called deconvolution.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 12, 2015
More of these highly extrapolated images of Pluto; take the time to read the article to understand them. http://www.nasa.g...horizons Here is a real image of Pluto and Charon taken on the eleventh of June. http://pluto.jhua...0%20msec

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