New Horizons at Pluto and Charon:  Movies Revisit the Great Exploration

July 16, 2021

New Horizons at Pluto and Charon: Movies Revisit the Great Exploration

Six years ago, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft made history with the first up-close exploration of the Pluto system — providing breathtaking views and detailed data on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, revealing the surfaces of these distant, mysterious worlds at the outer reaches of our solar system.

These simulated flights over Pluto and Charon include some of the sharpest images and topographic data that New Horizons gathered during its historic flyby on July 14, 2015. These are the first “movies" of Pluto and Charon made from the highest-resolution black-and-white image strips, taken by New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), as the spacecraft zipped by at more than 30,000 miles per hour.

“These new high-resolution flyover videos are incredible," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “They aren't just scientifically valuable, but they are also engaging, which is why we want to share them with the public. Enjoy flying over a planet named Pluto and its giant moon Charon, both more than three billion miles from Earth!"

Features as small as about 230 feet (70 meters) are visible on Pluto's icy, rocky surface. Moviemaker and New Horizons science team member Dr. Paul Schenk, a research scientist from Universities Space Research Association at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, used high-resolution topographic mapping analysis to show surface relief in the nitrogen-laden ice sheet in the Sputnik Planitia impact basin – half of Pluto's famous “heart" feature.

According to Schenk, “We have been able to create topographic data at full resolution over these image strips by taking the best New Horizons images of Pluto and Charon and using stereo and shading characteristics These data give us the best possible views of these complex bodies and show areas that experienced resurfacing and geologic activity. These movies simulate what Pluto and Charon might look like from an orbiting manned spacecraft later this century.”

This simulated flight starts near the center of the ice sheet and ends on the rugged ice-carved southeastern rim of the basin 300 miles (500 kilometers) away, where the difference between the highest and lowest points is more than 2 miles (3.5 kilometers). Also prominently visible are the small pits that cover the surface of the otherwise low-relief ice sheet. Schenk also added color data from New Horizons' Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) to bring out the reddish hues in Pluto's highlands.

The simulated Charon flyover starts in the low-lying, icy volcanic plains of Vulcan Planitia and ends in fractured northern plains some 300 miles (500 kilometers) away. Prominently visible are several mountains that rise about 1.5–2.5 miles (3–4 kilometers) above the volcanic plains. The images in this narrow strip show surface details as small as about 450 feet (140 meters) across.

New Horizons followed the first exploration of the Pluto system with the farthest flyby in history – and first close-up look at a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) – a flight past Arrokoth on New Year's Day 2019. Today, from its unique perch in the Kuiper Belt some 4.6 billion miles (7.4 billion kilometers) from Earth, New Horizons is making observations that can't be made from anywhere else; even the stars look different from the spacecraft's point of view.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built, and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio and Boulder, Colorado, directs the mission via Principal Investigator Stern, and leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston is operated by Universities Space Research Association under a cooperative agreement with NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

surface of Pluto

The yellow arrow denotes the “flight path” of New Horizons' cameras over the surface of Pluto. Credit:  NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute/Lunar and Planetary Institute/Paul Schenk/Nate Rudolph.

surface of Charon

The yellow arrow denotes the “flight path" of New Horizons' cameras over the surface of Charon. Credit:  NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Southwest Research Institute/Lunar and Planetary Institute/Paul Schenk/Nate Rudolph.

  Revisiting Pluto:  A Simulated Flight
  Revisiting Charon:  A Simulated Flight

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