Take A Virtual Reality Tour Of Pluto

On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons probe made history as it passed within 12,500 km (7,800 mi) of Pluto, thus making it the first spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet up close. And since this historic flyby, scientists and the astronomy enthusiasts here at Earth have been treated to an unending stream of breathtaking images and scientific discoveries about this distant world.

And thanks to the New York Times and the Universities Space Research Association‘s Lunar and Planetary Institute in Texas, it is now possible to take a virtual reality tour of Pluto. Using the data obtained by the New Horizon’s instruments, users will be able to experience what it is like to explore the planet using their smartphone or computer, or in 3D using a VR headset.

The seven-minute film, titled “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart“, which is narrated by science writer Dennis Overbye of the New York Times – shows viewers what it was like to approach the dwarf planet from the point of the view of the New Horizon’s probe. Upon arrival, they are then able to explore Pluto’s surface, taking in 360 degree views of its icy mountains, heart-shaped plains, and largest moon, Charon.

This represents the most detailed and clear look at Pluto to date. A few decades ago, the few maps of Pluto we had were the result of close observations that measured changes in the planet’s total average brightness as it was eclipsed by its largest moon, Charon. Computer processing yielded brightness maps, which were very basic by modern standards.

In the early 2000s, images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope were processed in order to create a more comprehensive view. Though the images were rather undetailed, they offered a much higher resolution view than the previous maps, allowing certain features – like Pluto’s large bright spots and the dwarf planet’s polar regions – to be resolved for the first time.

However, with the arrival of the New Horizons mission, human beings have been finally treated to a close-up view of Pluto and its surface.  This included Pluto’s now-famous heart-shaped plains, which were captured by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) while it was still several days away from making its closest approach.

Our changing impression of Pluto, represented by images taken by Hubble in 2002-3 (left), and images taken by the New Horizons mission in 2015 (right). Credit: theguardian.com

This was then followed-up by very clear images of its surface features and atmosphere, which revealed floating ice hills, mountains and icy flow plains, and surface clouds composed of methane and tholins. From all of these images, we now know what the surface of this distant world looks like with precision. All of this has allowed scientists here at Earth to reconstruct, in stunning detail, what it would be like to travel to Pluto and stand on its surface.

Amazingly, only half of New Horizon’s images and measurements have been processed so far. And with fresh data expected to arrive until this coming October, we can expect that scientists will be working hard for many years to analyze it all. One can only imagine what else they will learn about this mysterious world. And one can only hope that any news findings will be uploaded to the app (and those like it)!

The VR app can be downloaded at the New York Times VR website, and is available for both Android and Apple devices. It can also be viewed using headset’s like Google Cardboard, a smartphone, and a modified version exists for computer browsers.
Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

Recent Posts

Volcanoes on Mars Might Still be Active

Back in March, NASA's InSight lander detected two large quakes from a geologically active region…

8 hours ago

Mars Helicopter Completes its 4th Flight. 117 Seconds of Airtime

NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter just completed its fourth flight, once again setting records for extraterrestrial…

1 day ago

We Could Detect Extraterrestrial Satellite Megaconstellations Within a few Hundred Light-Years

If an alien civilization has a Starlink-like constellation of satellites, we might be able to…

1 day ago

What we’ve Learned About Venus From the Parker Solar Probe

The Parker Solar Probe has been getting in a lot of extracurricular activity lately.  Originally…

2 days ago

One Full Year of Seismic Data Collected by Mars Insight Includes 500 Quakes

The English vocabulary has some words that only make sense from an Earth-bound perspective.  Earthquake…

2 days ago

SpaceX’s SN15 Starship Prototype Nails It!

On the fifth attempt, SpaceX nailed the high-altitude flight test with a Starship prototype! Onward…

3 days ago