Scientists Spy a Doughnut, Whale on Pluto
Our closest view yet reveals familiar shapes on planet's surface
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 9, 2015 6:03 AM CDT
This photo of Pluto was taken 5 million miles away by New Horizons on July 7, 2015.   (NASA)
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(Newser) – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is set to pass within 7,750 miles of Pluto on Tuesday, and the probe has now sent us our closest view yet of the dwarf planet. Look closely and you might see some familiar shapes: Specifically, the image, taken from 5 million miles away, appears to show a heart-shaped feature on the brightest area of Pluto's surface, which scientists say is about 1,200 miles across. It "may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost—perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide—form a bright coating," experts say, per Universe Today. To the left of the "heart," lies a "whale," a dark area along Pluto's equator, about 1,860 miles wide, reports Smithsonian notes it could be made of hydrocarbons, which darken with sun exposure. And above the whale's tail is a bright "doughnut" 200 miles in diameter, which looks like impact craters and volcanoes on other celestial bodies.

The Washington Post notes there are also four mysterious spots to the right of the doughnut on a map provided by NASA, each hundreds of miles across, but scientists aren’t speculating on what they might be. "We're at the 'man in the moon' stage of viewing Pluto," says a researcher. "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." The latest image—a huge improvement on this early shot—is just a taste of what’s to come. "The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today," says a scientist. "It will be incredible!" New Horizons suffered a setback earlier on Saturday when a glitch sent it into safe mode, but it is "now operating flawlessly," a scientist adds. (Click for more on the mission.)