Pluto By Moonlight

It’s been nine years but the New Horizons unmanned spacecraft — NASA’s first mission to the Pluto system and the Kuiper belt — makes its final approach today. Here’s the deal.

It’s Antarctic winter on Pluto. The sun has not been visible for twenty years in this frigid south polar region; it will not shine again for another 80 years. The only source of natural light is starlight and moonlight from Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

On July 14, New Horizons mission scientists will soon obtain the first images of the night region of Pluto, using only the light from Charon, itself softly illuminated by a Sun 1,000 times dimmer than it is at Earth. The images will provide New Horizons’ only view of Pluto’s lesser-known south polar region, currently in the midst of a numbingly-long winter. The pictures will be made with the LORRI and Ralph instruments, shortly after New Horizons passes its point of closest approach to Pluto.

The Brown University Ladd Observatory is open to the public on Tuesdays, weather permitting (check their Facebook page for updates). For some perspective, check out the Pluto pix snapped last week by at the Ladd Observatory. Staff astronomer, Francine Jackson, has a nice bit about the naming of Pluto. (Fun fact: about 25% of the New Horizons team is female.)

Last time we mentioned Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of the apparent ninth planet. The name for this new object went through several phases, until 11-year-old Venezia Burney suggested Pluto, which was approved in May of 1930. This also was considered a great choice because the first two letters of Pluto are the initials of the man whose observatory was used to discover the object, Percival Lowell.

Image caption: In this artist’s rendering, Pluto’s largest moon Charon rises over the frozen south pole surface of Pluto, casting a faint silvery luminescence across the distant planetary landscape.

Image credit: JHUAPL / SwRI

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