There’s a near-perfect heart shape on Pluto’s rusty red surface. The dwarf planet is dotted with bright points which may be ice caps, and a mysterious dark shape nicknamed “The Whale.”
Scientists are seeing all this for the first time as a piano-sized NASA spacecraft, called New Horizons, hurtles toward the distant celestial body on its way toward a historic flyby on July 14.
“We’re at the ‘man in the moon’ stage of viewing Pluto,” said John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, 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.”
But scientists expect those mysteries to be solved in coming days as the spacecraft closes in on Pluto, once considered the farthest planet in the solar system before it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006.
That same year, the New Horizons mission launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a journey of nearly 10 years and three billion miles, becoming the first spacecraft to explore this far-away frontier.
“We are coming up on the culmination of all this effort, all this planning,” said Joe Peterson, a science operations leader for the New Horizons mission.
“Very soon we are going to go by Pluto and get the actual goods.”
The closest flyby is scheduled for July 14 at 7:50 am (1150 GMT), when New Horizons passes within 9,977 kilometres of Pluto.
Moving at a speed of 49,570 kilometres per hour, it is the fastest spacecraft ever launched.
The USD 700 million unmanned spacecraft has seven sophisticated science instruments and cameras that are collecting data daily and sending it back to Earth.
“The instruments on New Horizons were all designed to work together to give us a comprehensive picture of the Pluto system,” said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist for New Horizons.
They include three optical instruments, two plasma instruments, a dust sensor and a radio science receiver.
Together they will help scientists study Pluto’s geology, surface composition, temperature and atmosphere — as well as its five moons.
Blurry, pixellated color images began arriving in April and May, when the spacecraft was about 80 million kilometres away from its destination.