Researchers Present the Sharpest Image of Pluto Ever Taken from Earth

A “speckle image” reconstruction of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon (Gemini Observatory/NSF/NASA/AURA)

Real planet, dwarf planet, KBO, who cares? What matters here is that astronomers have created the sharpest image of Pluto ever made with ground-based observations — and developed a new way to verify potential Earth-like exoplanets at the same time.

Here’s how they did it:

After taking a series of quick “snapshots” of Pluto and Charon using a recently-developed camera called the Differential Speckle Survey Instrument (DSSI), which was mounted on the Gemini Observatory’s 8-meter telescope in Hawaii, researchers combined them into a single image while canceling out the noise caused by turbulence and optical aberrations. This “speckle imaging” technique resulted in an incredibly clear, crisp image of the distant pair of worlds — especially considering that 1. it was made with images taken from the ground, 2. Pluto is small, and 3. Pluto is very, very far away.

Read: Why Pluto is No Longer a Planet

Less than 3/4 the diameter of our Moon, Pluto (and Charon, which is about half that size) are currently circling each other about 3 billion miles from Earth — 32.245 AU to be exact. That’s a long way off, and there’s still much more that we don’t know than we do about the dwarf planet’s system. New Horizons will fill in a lot of the blanks when it passes close by Pluto in July 2015, and images like this can be a big help to mission scientists who want to make sure the spacecraft is on a safe path.

“The Pluto-Charon result is of timely interest to those of us wanting to understand the orbital dynamics of this pair for the 2015 encounter by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft,” said Steve Howell of the NASA Ames Research Center, who led the Gemini imaging study.

See images of Pluto taken by Hubble here.

In addition, the high resolution achievable through the team’s speckle imaging technique may also be used to confirm the presence of exoplanet candidates discovered by Kepler. With an estimated 3- to 4-magnitude increase in imaging sensitivity, astronomers may be able to use it to pick out the optical light reflected by a distant Earth-like world around another star.

Speckle imaging has been used previously to identify binary star systems, and with the comparative ability to “separate a pair of automobile headlights in Providence, RI, from San Francisco, CA” there’s a good chance that it can help separate an exoplanet from the glare of its star as well.

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Kepler discovery mission, and will be published in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in October 2012. Read more here.

Main image: the first speckle reconstructed image for Pluto and Charon from which astronomers obtained not only the separation and position angle for Charon, but also the diameters of the two bodies. North is up, east is to the left, and the image section shown is 1.39 arcseconds across. Resolution of the image is about 20 milliarcseconds rms. Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/NASA/AURA. Inset: the Gemini North telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea. (Gemini Observatory)

16 Replies to “Researchers Present the Sharpest Image of Pluto Ever Taken from Earth”

    1. The upside with voting is that not agreeing is acceptable. I will not elaborate on the downside though.

    2. If I had my way I would have terrestrial planets and gas giants classified as separate objects. If one wants to colloquially consider Pluto a planet, fine. However, our solar system seems to have three basic types of objects orbiting the sun: terrestrial planets, Jovian (gas giant) planets and Kupier belt objects. Kupier belt objects do not define their orbital region (clearing other objects), and so they are classified as dwarf planets, along withe Ceres. I am not sure about this definition, for a pair of extra-solar planets have been found in mutual orbits that defy this definition.

      In the end no matter how you define things there will be people not happy with it.


      1. I agree that semantics are just that, and having three classifications as well (isn’t the Earth and the Moon considered by some to be a binary planet per mass ratio?) but in all fairness, I’ve heard it stated that if the Earth were as far out as Pluto even it wouldn’t be able to Hoover it’s orbital plain well enough to be considered one either…

      2. Not all Kuiper Belt Objects are the same. We need to distinguish between the few that are large enough to be rounded by their own gravity and therefore are complex worlds, smaller versions of the other solar system planets, and tiny, shapeless icy bodies. The term “dwarf planet” should be used to designate not a third class of objects, but a third class of planets, small planets large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium but not large enough to have gravitationally dominate their orbits. To not distinguish small planets from tiny asteroids and KBOs is simply bad science. The “requirement” that an object “clear the neighborhood of its orbit” was artificially imposed by a small group who wanted to keep the number of solar system planets small. It is inherently biased against planets further from their parent stars, which have larger and larger orbits to clear. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, it would not clear that orbit either, meaning the IAU definition might result in the same object being a planet in one location and not a planet in another. It is one thing for there to be some people not happy with a definition; it is completely another when large numbers of planetary scientists reject a definition because of its many problems, as can be seen in this petition here:

    3. No, the moment has past, and Pluto will never be returned because of what we now know of the outer Solar System. (It didn’t even get a mention at the IAU 2012 in China, now did it!)

      After you last crazy antics in Universe Today a little while ago, you’ve convinced most, you are in a very small minority. (Your little astrological connection we fond out too, wasn’t going to help this little cause either!)

      1. “The moment has passed?” In other words, your notion of science is a dictate by a tiny percent of an authoritative body as fact, speaking once for all eternity. That is religion, not science. Pluto will be returned once we recognize that dwarf planets are actually a third class of planets and should not be in the same category as asteroids and shapeless KBOs. The Pluto issue did in fact get two mentions in Beijing, on August 24 and 29, in two different sessions, and while no action was taken, there was acknowledgement that many astronomers do not accept the current IAU definition. There is also the fact that after a group of planetary scientists petitioned the IAU to reopen the issue at the 2009 General Assembly, and were refused by the IAU leadership, this group of planetary scientists has dissociated themselves from the IAU, looking to possibly create a separate planetary science organization. The IAU is not the only venue for the crafting of such definitions.

        “Crazy antics?” If you have to resort to ad hominem attacks, that shows the weakness of your position. And if you’re referring to me regarding an “astrological connection,” the only such connection is that as an actress, I have played a court astrologer in the cast of a Renaissance Faire. That’s called acting. I am no more into astrology than an actor who plays a murderer is into killing.

    4. I can’t be certain but I think those links are automated. I imagine that the content management system that Universe Today uses seeks out related and popular articles based on keywords in the title, tags etc., and then drops a link into the text body.

  1. On the one hand you’ve got a ‘picture’ of something that is billions of miles away. Kudos on that. On the other hand you’ve got a round blob approximately 9 or 10 pixels wide with an accompanying smudge. I really don’t see what information we can get about Pluto out of that. I certainly don’t see how it can provide any useful navigational data for the New Horizons flyby. I’m not saying it can’t, but just that *I* don’t see how it can.

    However as a technique that with some refinement could potentially produce pictures of exo-planets… waaaaay cool.

  2. What do you mean you can’t get information from these blobs?

    * You can measure the distance between these blobs giving a clue how far they are from each other and fine-tune the expected masses.
    * You can measure the brightness of these blobs relative to each other and see how they change.
    * You can measure the angle it traverses per time interval and give additional information about the masses.
    * You calibrated you camera and check how sensitive it is.
    * …

  3. I predict in another 3-4 years we’ll have even better quality, Hi-Res images of Pluto. Just a hunch though…

  4. The most amazing thing, really, is that two motorists in Providence, RI, now have to get their stories strait when being interviewed by the San Francisco police. I bet that they never saw that coming when they started out.

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