Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 October 6

Flying Past Pluto
Video Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins U. APL, SwRI, Stuart Robbins

Explanation: What would it look like to fly past Pluto? The robotic New Horizons spacecraft did just this in late July and continues to return stunning pictures of the dwarf planet. Some well-chosen flyby images have now been digitally sequenced to create the featured video. The animation begins by showing New Horizon's approach to the Pluto system, with Pluto and its largest moon Charon orbiting a common center of mass. As the spacecraft bears down on Pluto uniquely, surprising surface features are nearly resolved that, unfortunately, quickly rotate out of view. New Horizons then passes just above and near a large, fascinating, light-colored, heart-shaped, and unusually smooth region now known as Tombaugh Regio. The spacecraft then pivots to look back at Pluto's night side, seeing an encompassing atmospheric haze. Finally, Pluto fades away in a final sequence illustrated with the orbits of many of Pluto's smaller moons. Although humanity has no current plans to return to Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft may well be directed next to fly past an asteroid currently known only as 2014 MU69.

Tomorrow's picture: eclipse to scale

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (UMCP)
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