As NASA's New Horizon's spacecraft rapidly approaches Pluto for its historic flyby in July, the dwarf planet is gradually sliding into focus. And in the latest series of observations beamed back from the fringes of the Kuiper belt, surface features are becoming evident including the stunning revelation that Pluto may possess a polar ice cap.
VIDEO: Pluto Flyby and Black Holes: Top Space Events for 2015
"As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto's visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C. "As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons."
Captured in mid-April from a distance of under 70 million miles from the dwarf planet by New Horizons' Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera, the data was sharpened and interpreted to reveal vast regions of varying albedo (surface brightness) as the small world rotated on its axis. Pluto's largest moon Charon can also be seen orbiting, tugging Pluto off-center, both bodies orbiting a common point in space, known as a barycenter, well above Pluto's surface.
PHOTOS: Our Dwarf Planet Dreams are Coming into Focus
But the most striking thing about these observations is not the incredible wobble in Pluto and Charon's dance, nor the blotchy rotating landscapes and the bright region at Pluto's pole; it's the slow realization that this planetary lightweight is showing obvious signs of possessing a rich and dynamic landscape. Moreover, we only have another 3 months until we see Pluto up-close for the first time in human history.
"After traveling more than nine years through space, it's stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface."
"We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto's surface this summer," said New Horizons project scientist Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md.
For more on this mind-boggling discovery, browse the imagery on NASA's news release.