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New Horizons Reveals a Psychedelic Pluto and Charon

Spectrometers on board NASA's New Horizons mission have revealed a bizarrely diverse jigsaw of chemicals and minerals on the surface of Pluto and moon Charon.

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."

NEWS: On Target: NASA Probe Ready To Punch Through Pluto System

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:

Source: JHUAPL

This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see.

After several false starts, NASA in 2001 agreed to fund an independent effort to fly a spacecraft to Pluto, the only member of the solar system’s original nine planets that hadn’t been explored. Five years later, New Horizons blasted off to begin a nearly 3 billion mile journey to Pluto, farther than any probe has traveled since the 1970s-era Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft.

Here’s a look at the New Horizons mission by the numbers.

MORE: From the Start, Pluto was a Puzzle: Timeline

Launching a small spacecraft on a big rocket is one way to get going fast. Slingshotting off giant Jupiter’s gravity is another. New Horizons did both, and still the journey to distant Pluto took nearly 10 years. It is zipping along at about 31,000 mph -- fast enough to fly from New York City to Los Angeles in less than 5 minutes.

MORE: Fuzzy to Clear: Space Robots Snap Solar System Into Focus

Image: Viewed from the top of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft roars off the launch pad aboard an Atlas V rocket on Jan. 19, 2006.

At its closest approach, New Horizons will pass about 7,750 miles from Pluto and about 17,900 miles from its orbital mate Charon. The view will be about 500 times better than this image, taken on July 7 when New Horizons was just less than 5 million miles from Pluto. New Horizons will pass through the Pluto system in about 30 minutes. The probe carries seven science instruments, including LORRI, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, telescope.

MORE: Once Just a Speck of Light, Pluto About to Be Unveiled

During the encounter, New Horizons will take hundreds of pictures in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The best images should depict surface features as small as 200 feet across. With nearly 3 billion miles between New Horizons and Earth, a radio signal, which travels at the speed of light, will take about 4.5 hours to reach Earth.

MORE: New Horizons is Carrying 9 Stowaways to Pluto

Image: An artist's impression of Pluto's surface reveals an icy surface -- we're about to find out what Pluto is really made of.

With just one shot to get a close-up view of Pluto, New Horizons is designed to gather as much data as possible, as quickly as possible. In all, scientists expect the spacecraft to collect 100 times more data during closest approach than it can transmit back to Earth just after the encounter. A few high-priority images and data will be sent back just before and after closest approach, but the rest will trickle in over the next 16 months.

MORE: Pluto Flyby Begins: NASA Probe Enters Encounter Phase

Image: Diagram showing the sequence of events during New Horizons' encounter with the Pluto system.

New Horizons draws electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, which converts heat given off by the natural decay of about 24 pounds of radioactive plutonium. It runs on less power than a pair of 110-watt light bulbs.

MORE: Student Experiment Will Count Cosmic Particles Around Pluto

Image: Artist's impression of New Horizons flying past Jupiter, with its RTG visible in the lower right of the image.

After its Pluto flyby, New Horizons will continue out into the Kuiper Belt region of the solar system. Scientists hope to extend its mission so it can pass by at least one of the thousands of icy bodies that orbit in this vast domain. Eventually, New Horizons will end up leaving the solar system. It is expected to remain viable until the late 2030s.

MORE: After Pluto, Where Will NASA's New Horizons Go?

Image: Artist's impression of New Horizons encountering a Kuiper Belt object beyond Pluto.