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New Horizons returns the first of its best Pluto images

These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, revealing features less than half the size of a city block on the diverse surface of the distant planet.
Pluto’s rugged, icy cratered plains include layering in the interior walls of many craters.
Layered Craters and Icy Plains: Pluto’s rugged, icy cratered plains include layering in the interior walls of many craters. Layers in geology usually mean an important change in composition or event, but at the moment New Horizons team members do not know if they are seeing local, regional, or global layering.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has sent back the first few of a series of the sharpest views of Pluto it obtained during its July flyby — and this image sequence forms the best close-ups of Pluto that humans may see for decades.

Every week the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft transmits data stored on its digital recorders from its flight through the Pluto system on July 14. These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel, revealing features less than half the size of a city block on the diverse surface of the distant planet. In these new images, New Horizons captured a wide variety of spectacular, cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains.

“These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth,” said John Grunsfeld from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see.”
Erosion and faulting has sculpted portions of Pluto’s icy crust into rugged badlands.
Pluto’s Badlands: Erosion and faulting has sculpted portions of Pluto’s icy crust into rugged badlands. The prominent 1.2-mile-high cliff at the top, running from left to upper right, is part of a great canyon system that stretches for hundreds of miles across Pluto’s northern hemisphere.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
The images form a strip 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide trending from Pluto’s jagged horizon about 500 miles (800km) northwest of the informally named Sputnik Planum, across the al-Idrisi mountains, onto the shoreline of Sputnik, and then across its icy plains.

“These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology,” said Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys, yet at Pluto we’re there already — down among the craters, ice fields, and mountains — less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable.”

The images are six times better than the resolution of the global Pluto map New Horizons obtained and five times better than the best images of Pluto’s cousin Triton, Neptune’s large moon, obtained by Voyager 2 in 1989.
Great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains.
The Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum: Great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material while other sides are bright.
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
“Impact craters are nature’s drill rigs, and the new highest-resolution pictures of the bigger craters seem to show that Pluto’s icy crust, at least in places, is distinctly layered,” said William McKinnon from Washington University in St. Louis. “Looking into Pluto’s depths is also looking back into geologic time, which will help us piece together Pluto’s geological history.”

“The mountains bordering Sputnik Planum are absolutely stunning at this resolution,” said New Horizons science team member John Spencer. “The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations.”

These images were made with the telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons in a timespan of about a minute on July 14 — just about 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto — from a range of just 10,000 miles (17,000km). They were obtained with an unusual observing mode. Instead of working in the usual “point and shoot,” LORRI snapped pictures every three seconds while the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons was scanning the surface. This mode requires unusually short exposures to avoid blurring the images.

Mission scientists expect more imagery from this set over the next several days, showing even more terrain at this highest resolution.

New Horizons, speeding through deep space at more than 32,000 miles (51,500km) per hour, is approximately 104 million miles (167 million km) beyond Pluto and 3.2 billion miles (5.2 billion km) from Earth. All spacecraft systems are healthy.
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