It took NASA’s New Horizons more than nine years to travel three billion miles to reach Pluto. And now, when the spacecraft is preparing for its highly anticipated July 14 flyby, a new photo of the dwarf planet, obtained by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons, has shown what scientists have never observed before -- Pluto’s “heart.”
In addition to the prominent elongated dark region, informally known as “the whale,” at the equator of Pluto’s surface, the new photo also showed a large heart-shaped bright area, which measures nearly 1,200 miles across on the right. The new photo was taken on Tuesday, and is said to be the most detailed photo returned by LORRI so far.
“The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today,” Jeff Moore, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a statement on Wednesday.
The new image, which is centered on the area that will be seen from a closer distance during New Horizons’ July 14 approach, was captured when the spacecraft was just less than 5 million miles from Pluto. The image was also the first to be received after New Horizons unexpectedly shut down on July 4 due to an anomaly.
Earlier this week, astronomers used images of Pluto taken from June 27 through July 3 to create a map, helping mission scientists to decode the complex pattern of bright and dark spots on Pluto’s surface.
Scientists expect to better understand Pluto and its neighborhood when New Horizons will pass within 7,800 miles of the planet’s surface next week. The spacecraft is currently less than 4 million miles from Pluto.