Space & Innovation

Psychedelic Dwarf: Why Pluto Was Turned Into Pop Art

Is this an Andy Warhol interpretation of Pluto? Actually, it's a beautiful example of when scientific data can imitate art.

Before July, we only had a very vague and very fuzzy idea about what Pluto would look like up-close. Now, since the NASA New Horizons flyby, we're becoming intimately familiar with the tiny, complex world's icy plains, mountains, chemical composition and tenuous, yet intricate, atmosphere.

The mission's findings so far have been nothing short of revolutionary - we have a complex, dynamic world living in what was once thought to be a dead and frozen region of the solar system.

PHOTOS: New Pluto Pics Show Beautiful, Complex World

With all this diversity on Pluto, it can be hard for planetary scientists to discern the different types of surface features for scientific study, so they have produced what, at first, looks like an iconic Andy Warhol creation. They've created a psychedelic Pluto, blotted with highly contrasting colors.

Although science often imitates art, this interpretation of Pluto's famous hemisphere holds critical scientific purpose. The technique is known as "principal component analysis" and it is used to see slight changes in surface composition. The observation was captured with New Horizons' Ralph/MVIC color camera on July 14 as the spacecraft was nearing closest approach of the dwarf planet - at a range of 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers).

PHOTO: New Horizons Returns Photos of Hazy ‘Arctic' Pluto

Presented by the New Horizons surface composition this week at the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in National Harbor, Md., this false-color view of Pluto is testament to how complex the world really is.

The splashes of vibrant hues highlight slight color differences between Pluto's distinct regions. Immediately, Pluto's plains and canyons pop into view. We can distinguish between the older, more cratered region of Pioneer Terra (to the north) and compare it with the astonishingly young ice flows in Sputnik Planum (the western lobe of Tombaugh Regio - Pluto's huge heart-shaped region). To the far right (east) of the observation, we can see the shadows cast over Pluto's bizarre "snakeskin"-like Tartarus Dorsa region.

ANALYSIS: Pluto, Enhanced: Photo Reveals Dwarf Planet's Complexity

Pluto is a feast of surprising features and, although New Horizons is diving deeper into the Kuiper Belt with Pluto a distant memory, we have months of data still to be beamed back to Earth from the historic mission. In other words, we're only at the cusp of beginning to understand the planetary mechanisms driving the dwarf planet, a planetary adventure that is as captivating as it is mysterious.

For high-resolution views of a rather psychedelic Pluto, see NASA's image release page.

New Horizons is a lean, speedy space machine, but mission managers did tuck in nine mementos. Here's a rundown of what’s aboard.

Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997, a few years before NASA finally committed to send a spacecraft to what was then considered the last unexplored planet in the solar system. Astronomers have since discovered that Pluto resides in a previously unknown region called the Kuiper Belt, with hundreds of thousands of mini-planets and comet-like objects orbiting beyond Neptune. Tombaugh is along in more than spirit. A small container of his ashes is attached to the inside, upper deck of New Horizons, inscribed with the following: "Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's ‘third zone’ Adelle and Muron's boy, Patricia's husband, Annette and Alden's father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh."

MORE: From the Start, Pluto was a Puzzle

Even before New Horizons’ launch in January 2006, public outreach was a big part of the mission. Its “Send Your Name to Pluto” campaign resulted in a compact disc containing the names of 434,738 people who signed up for the honors. The disc was mounted to the outside of the spacecraft. (If you signed up, you can search for your certificate at pluto.jhuapl.edu/Mission/Communications/Search-Name.php.) The project was spearheaded by an artist and member of the Carl Sagan team that developed gold-plated phonograph records containing sights and sounds from Earth for the 1970s-era Voyager probes. New Horizons also carries a second CD-ROM with pictures of the New Horizons team members, as well as two U.S. flags.

MORE: New Photos Show A Two-Faced Pluto

In 2004, Florida released its new state quarter, depicting, among other images, a space shuttle and engraved with the words “Gateway to Discovery.” It, along with a quarter from Maryland, were included to note the places where New Horizons departed Earth and where it was manufactured. “We thought it was a cool thing to do. All the states were coming out with new quarters then,” New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told Discovery News. “We would have flown Colorado too, but it didn’t have a state quarter in time.” With space tight aboard New Horizons and every ounce of weight a factor, the coins doubled as spin-balance weights.

MORE: Student Experiment Will Count Cosmic Particles Around Pluto

In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp (it cost 29 cents to mail a letter back then, by the way) with an artist’s rendering of Pluto and the words “Not Yet Explored.” “We thought it would be great to have this stamp fly past Pluto while its message becomes obsolete,” Stern wrote on the project’s website. A petition is underway at change.org to have the USPS issue a new Pluto stamp, now that its old one is obsolete.

ANALYSIS: Apollo 15's Bizarre Contraband Stamp Debacle

As New Horizons was coming together, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded human spacecraft to travel in space. A trio of suborbital flights, including a test run and two trips to clinch the $10 million Ansari X Prize, gave SpaceShipOne a place in the history books, a spot in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and, for a little piece of it anyway, a ride aboard the first spaceship to travel to Pluto. The piece cut from SpaceShipOne is installed on New Horizons’ lower insider deck.

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