New Horizons is back in action — and the probe’s latest picture reveals a surface feature that has a distinctively heart-like shape. NASA has also released an updated map of Pluto, showing two surface features that have been dubbed the “whale” and “donut.”
The top image was received by NASA scientists earlier today. New Horizons was just under 5 million miles (8 million km) from Pluto when the picture was taken. It’s the first new image since the technical anomaly this past weekend. The image shows a distinct geological feature that’s very heart-like in its shape. Coincidentally, the New Horizons spacecraft will be honing-in on this area during its flyby on July 14.
This image below was put together using images taken from June 27 to July 3 by the LORRI camera on New Horizons, along with low-res color data from the Ralph instrument. This whole-planet map is offering scientists an unprecedented glimpse of Pluto’s dramatic surface features.
A release from NASA explains:
The elongated dark area informally known as “the whale,” along the equator on the left side of the map, is one of the darkest regions visible to New Horizons. It measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length.
Directly to the right of the whale’s “snout” is the brightest region visible on the planet, which is roughly 990 miles (1,600 kilometers) across. This may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost—perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide—form a bright coating.
Continuing to the right, along the equator, we see the four mysterious dark spots that have so intrigued the world, each of which is hundreds of miles across. Meanwhile, the whale’s “tail,” at the left end of the dark feature, cradles a bright donut-shaped feature about 200 miles (350 kilometers) across. At first glance it resembles circular features seen elsewhere in the solar system, from impact craters to volcanoes. But scientists are holding off on making any interpretation of this and other features on Pluto until more detailed images are in hand.
This map is great—but NASA says we should expect resolutions 1,000 times better than this in the coming days and weeks. Whoa.
Note: This post was updated to include the new “heart” photo.
Contact the author at email@example.com and @dvorsky. Images by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.