Pluto's first movies show planet in orbital dance with its moon

Animated photos taken by NASA’s New Horizons space probe reveals the orbital dance between Pluto and its largest moon, Charon.

Back in April, NASA’s New Horizons space probe snapped the first colored images of the dwarf planet Pluto.

On Monday, the space agency took it a step further, releasing two color “movies” that reveal the orbital dance between Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. The animation not only displays the contrasting colors between planet and moon – it also shows the two bodies waltzing around a central point in an arrangement scientists call a “double planet.”

“It's exciting to see Pluto and Charon in motion and in color,” Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, said in a statement. “Even at this low resolution, we can see that Pluto and Charon have different colors – Pluto is beige-orange, while Charon is grey. Exactly why they are so different is the subject of debate.”

The near-true color movies were created using images in blue, red, and near-infrared taken on nine different occasions and from different perspectives from May 29 to June 3.

The first film shows Charon moving in relation to Pluto, which is at the center of the scene. The second movie reveals the more accurate reality: the planet and the moon orbiting around a barycenter, or a shared center of gravity between the two bodies.

New Horizons, which launched in January 2006, is the first-ever mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, a relic of a solar system formation past Neptune. In sending the spacecraft on this nearly 3-billion mile journey, NASA is giving humans our first close-up look at the distant dwarf planet.

New Horizons “is a real 21st century exploration spacecraft, with tremendous capability,” Mr. Stern said in April. “It is in perfect health, full of fuel and carrying a scientific arsenal – the most powerful suite of science instruments ever brought to bear on the first reconnaissance of a planet.”

NASA also hopes the probe will help answer questions about the surface properties, atmospheres, and moons of the Pluto system, especially when New Horizons makes its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, zipping by about 7,800 miles above the planet’s surface.

“Color observations are going to get much, much better, eventually resolving the surfaces of Charon and Pluto at scales of just kilometers,” said Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist from Southwest Research Institute.

“This will help us unravel the nature of their surfaces and the way volatiles transport around their surfaces,” she added. “I can’t wait; it’s just a few weeks away!”

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