Days after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft -- currently on its way to the dwarf planet Pluto -- shut down unexpectedly on July 4, the space agency released the latest batch of “high-resolution” photos of the cold, distant world.
The photos, which were obtained prior to the July 4 anomaly that briefly sent New Horizons into “safe mode,” show, among other things, the full extent of a continuous swath of dark terrain that wraps around much of Pluto’s equatorial region -- a feature that has baffled scientists since it was first detected late last month.
“It's a real puzzle -- we don't know what the spots are, and we can't wait to find out,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said, in an earlier statement.
However, the latest photos only add to the enigma surrounding the distant celestial body. They show the western end of the black band breaking up into a series of dark, regularly-spaced spots -- each one hundreds of miles in size.
Additionally, a color version of the image obtained on July 3 by the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) provides another “near-true color” photograph of the dwarf planet.
“Intriguing details are beginning to emerge in the bright material north of the dark region, in particular a series of bright and dark patches that are conspicuous just below the center of the disk,” NASA said, in a statement released Monday.
Given its distance from the sun, Pluto -- which was demoted from planet status in 2006 -- is shrouded in darkness. At its average distance, sunlight takes about 5.5 hours to reach the dwarf planet, and for years, astronomers have struggled to discern features on its surface and that on its equally mysterious moon, Charon. However, this is likely to change in just over a week, when New Horizons is expected to pass within 7,800 miles of the dwarf planet’s surface, revealing its “complex and nuanced surface” in unprecedented detail.