Before we start getting too excited by these pre-flyby observations of Pluto and moon Charon, it's worth noting that they are false color. Neither body look like this in reality. However, spectrometers on board NASA's New Horizons did produce these images, revealing a bizarrely diverse jigsaw of chemicals and minerals on the surface.
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"These images show that Pluto and Charon are truly complex worlds. There's a whole lot going on here," said Will Grundy, New Horizons co-investigator at Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Ariz. "Our surface composition team is working as fast as we can to identify the substances in different regions on Pluto and unravel the processes that put them where they are."
These observations were generated using data from the "Ralph" instrument on board the speeding probe a couple of hours before New Horizons made close approach of the dwarf planet system at 7:49 AM EDT on Tuesday. The imager is tasked with mapping the chemical composition of Pluto's surface (and its moons) and, in this observation, the colors recorded have been greatly exaggerated so scientists can see the rich variety of chemical composition on the surface.
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Ralph is coupled with another spectrometer, "Alice", that is tasked with measuring Pluto's cold, yet dynamic atmosphere.
These images will help astronomers decipher what ices and compounds are laced with the surface material, eventually revealing what chemical processes are occuring on the small bdy. It also turns out that Charon isn't a uniformly-colored moon either; a reddish hue on Charon's northern polar cap is due to a buildup of "hydrocarbons and other molecules, a class of chemical compounds called tholins," writes a Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory new release. The rest of the terrain appears just as rich and varied as Pluto's.
"We make these color images to highlight the variety of surface environments present in the Pluto system," said Dennis Reuter, co-investigator with the New Horizons Composition Team. "They show us in an intuitive way that there is much still to learn from the data coming down."
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And the voyage of discovery has only just begun. Although New Horizons' encounter with Pluto lasted only 30 minutes, the huge quantities of data gathered by the probe will take 16 months to download. But before the next batch of data can be downloaded, we have to wait for a signal from the space robot to let us know that it has successfully and safely cleared the Pluto system, a signal that is expected to be received in a little under an hour.
Watch this space...
Watch Tuesday's Google+ Hangout with Trace Dominguez and Ian O'Neill who discuss the Pluto New Horizons discoveries so far: