New Horizons: I Spy Pluto and Charon!

by Nancy Atkinson on July 10, 2013

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New Horizons LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) composite image showing the detection of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, cleanly separated from Pluto itself. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

New Horizons LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) composite image showing the detection of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, cleanly separated from Pluto itself. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

The New Horizons spacecraft is still about 880 million kilometers (550 million miles) from Pluto, but on July 1 and 3, 2013, the spacecraft’s LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) was able to detect not only Pluto, but its largest moon, Charon, visible and cleanly separated from Pluto itself. Charon orbits about 19,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) away from Pluto, and seen from New Horizons, that’s only about 0.01 degrees away.

“The image itself might not look very impressive to the untrained eye, but compared to the discovery images of Charon from Earth, these ‘discovery’ images from New Horizons look great!” said New Horizons Project Scientist Hal Weaver. “We’re very excited to see Pluto and Charon as separate objects for the first time from New Horizons.”

The frame on the left in the grouping of images above is an average of six different LORRI images, each taken with an exposure time of 0.1 second. The frame to the right is the same composite image but with Pluto and Charon circled; Pluto is the brighter object near the center and Charon is the fainter object near its 11 o’clock position. The circles also denote the predicted locations of the objects, showing that Charon is where the team expects it to be, relative to Pluto. No other Pluto system objects are seen in these images.

These images are just a hint of what’s to come when New Horizons gets closer to the Pluto system. On July 14, 2015, the spacecraft is scheduled to pass just 12,500 kilometers (7,750 miles) above Pluto’s surface, where LORRI will be able to spot features about the size of a football field.

“We’re excited to have our first pixel on Charon,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, “but two years from now, near closest approach, we’ll have almost a million pixels on Charon –and I expect we’ll be about a million times happier too!”

Pluto has five known moons (and naming them has been a bit controversial). Will New Horizons find even more?

Source: New Horizons

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

William Sparrow July 10, 2013 at 9:41 PM

This is very exciting! It strains the imagination to ponder what images New Horizons will return when it flies within 12,500 kilometers. I simply can’t wait for 2015!

Mike Petersen July 10, 2013 at 4:58 PM

Although it will be neat to see close ups of Pluto and its moons, I wager we’ll see just a big ol’ rock along with some little ol’ rocks. I hope not, but that’s what I think we’ll see.

Dav_Daddy July 10, 2013 at 11:45 PM

2015 won’t get here soon enough for me either! I do wish we would be able to do more than just a flyby however. :(

I know there is no way Pluto has enough mass to capture a spacecraft I wonder if it would be possible to use Neptune as brake? If I recall Neptune is only like 5x Earths mass so probably not, but it’s something to think about.

William Sparrow July 11, 2013 at 12:21 AM

I’m with you. Let’s hope the results exceed our expectations!

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Pooklont July 11, 2013 at 4:57 AM

One nice thing about New Horizons is that it will measure the diameter of Pluto, besides taking photos of the Plutonian System, that will most likely confirm what Bruno Sicardy of the Paris Observatory concluded in 2011 — Pluto is larger than Eris and all other dwarf planets. This will help Pluto be replanetized. And, of course, Pluto should never have been unplanetized. Dwarf stars are still stars. Dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Dwarf planets should be a third class of planets.

David H July 11, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Again the same speak about the dwarf planet… 7 years after the IAU resolution.
Again the same speak about the dwarf planet… 7 years after the IAU resolution.

And why the third class of planets? There is only one class of planets as you can see here:
http://www.iau.org/static/resolutions/Resolution_GA26-5-6.pdf

Once again, a dwarf planet is not about the size but the mass. If Pluto is larger than Eris, it’s still have a small mass so stay in the dwarf planet categorie.

The debate start just after the beginning of New Horizon journey, I hope it’ll closed when we should see the first pictures of Pluto and his moons.

JM July 11, 2013 at 7:11 AM

IMO given the consistency of remarkable images making their way to our eyes over the past 50 years, regardless of source,”disappointment” from Pluto is not even a possibility.

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