Home > astronomy > New Horizons probe sends back image of Pluto’s moon Charon

New Horizons probe sends back image of Pluto’s moon Charon

The New Horizons spacecraft won’t arrive in the vicinity of Pluto until 2015, but it is close enough now to obtain images of some Kuiper Belt objects.

NASA has released images of Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, taken by New Horizons earlier this month. The images of Charon are somewhat fuzzy because the spacecraft is still about 550 million miles (900 million kilometers) away from Pluto, which is farther away from the dwarf planet than Earth is from Jupiter. From the perspective of the spacecraft, Charon’s location is about 0.01 degrees from Pluto.

Nevertheless, the detail they provide about Charon is a significant improvement over that obtained from Earth-based observation.

“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!”, Hal Weaver, a New Horizons project scientist affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said. “We’re very excited to see Pluto and Charon as separate objects for the first time from New Horizons.”

The photographs were obtained by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager in less than one second.

Charon is not Pluto’s only satellite. However, the images obtained by LORRI (an acronym for New Horizons’ photographic apparatus) indicate just how tiny the other moons of Pluto are. Pluto is about 2,300 kilometers across and Charon is about half that large (1,200 kilometers). None of the other moons of Pluto exceed about 170 kilometers across. Some may be as small as 10 kilometers (that’s about 6.2 miles) across!

Image

This composite image of Charon is an amalgamation of six images. Pluto is the bright object near the center of the frame, while Charon is the dimmer object to the upper left of Pluto. Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

New Horizons is beyond the orbit of Uranus and is traveling at a velocity of about 15 kilometers per second. That’s about 32,000 miles per hour! Despite that amazing speed, the spacecraft won’t arrive at Pluto until July 2015. By the time it gets there it will have been traveling in the cosmos for about nine and one-half years.

If that causes you to wonder just how big the solar system is, it should. Think of it this way: the solar system is so enormous that even the two Voyager spacecraft that were launched 36 years ago, which are still moving as fast as New Horizons is, have not yet left it.

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