NASA Spacecraft on Pluto's Doorstep
New images of planet's 'faces' show 'complex surface': scientist
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 17, 2015 11:48 AM CDT
This image shows four computer-enhanced views of Pluto, taken by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).   (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute via AP)
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(Newser) – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is all set for what predicts will be a "truly epic encounter" with Pluto next month. The first spacecraft ever sent to the dwarf planet, New Horizons is now about 20 million miles away—and 2.9 billion miles from Earth, reports Astronomy—but will get within 7,750 miles of the planet on July 14. During the flyby, it is expected to capture the most detailed views of Pluto ever, before exploring the outer edge of our solar system—if its power supply allows. "There are a lot of interesting interactions between the heliosphere"—the magnetic bubble around our solar system—"and what's beyond that, so we'd like to get there, and it looks like we can make it until the mid-2030s at least," an engineer says.

Since providing the first color photo of Pluto in April, the spacecraft has also captured images of all four of the planet's "faces" from 30 million miles away, using its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. Already, researchers say they're able to make out a "complex and nuanced surface." "We've always known Pluto had dark areas, but now, we're starting to see how large they are, where they're exactly located, what shape they take—and it's very fascinating to see this level of detail," a scientist says. "This is getting really exciting." In the coming days, the spacecraft will snap infrared photographs of both Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, to map surface geology and temperature. Can't wait for the flyby? Appease yourself with this trailer, per the Verge.