Almost a year after NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past Pluto, the team behind the mission has put together a long mosaic strip that includes all of the highest-resolution images.
“This new image product is just magnetic,” Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from Southwest Research Institute who serves as New Horizons’ principal investigator, said today in a NASA news release. “It makes me want to go back on another mission to Pluto and get high-resolution images like these across the entire surface.”
The view starts up at the edge of Pluto’s disk and runs hundreds of miles, down to nearly the terminator line between Plutonian day and night. The width of the strip ranges from 45 to 55 miles, depending on the perspective. Peak resolution is about 260 feet per pixel.
The imagery for the mosaic was captured by New Horizons’ LORRI camera as it flew within 9,850 miles of the surface, about 23 minutes before closest approach on July 14, 2015. The terrain varies from hummocky, cratered uplands, to mountain ranges made of ice, to plains covered with blobs of frozen nitrogen, to dark, rugged highlands.
New Horizons is more than 235 million miles beyond Pluto by now, heading toward a 2019 rendezvous with 2014 MU69, another icy object in the broad band of material known as the Kuiper Belt.
The probe is still sending back imagery and other data. In fact, last week New Horizons’ scientists shared pictures and science data about an object beyond Pluto, known as 1994 JR1. But the Pluto pictures that make up the mosaic released today are as good as they’ll get.
It’d be nice for Stern and the rest of us to get another close look at the dwarf planet. But considering the lead time that’s required for outer-planet missions, and the competing priorities for exploration, it’ll be decades before another probe gets anywhere close to Pluto again.
Then again … if SpaceX can spare a Falcon Heavy rocket, Stern just might get his wish sooner than we think. “Payload to Pluto: 2,900 kg.”