NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured hundreds of photos during its flyby of Pluto in mid-July that are still being returned to Earth. The latest batch inspired one NASA scientist to produce an animation that shows what it might be like to take a bird’s eye view tour through Pluto’s thin atmosphere and soar along the path that New Horizons explored.
Stuart Robbins, a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., has been using New Horizons’ images to map craters across the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, in order to better understand the impact of the Kuiper Belt’s many asteroids, comets, and ice chunks striking the dwarf planet and its moon. While mapping craters is his area of research, Dr. Robbins seeks to “convey some of the sheer beauty and power of the features New Horizons is revealing” with his animations.
The “mosaic” of images that make up the animation, as Robbins terms it, starts with the “heart” of Pluto – informally named Tombaugh Regio – and the surrounding region.
The tour high-flies over Norgay Montes, an icy mountain range that juts 2 miles from the planetary surface, at a height of about 120 miles. The animation then veers north, over Sputnik Planum, an icy plane within the heart, and over Cthulhu Regio, one of Pluto’s darkest areas. The differences in brightness between the vast plane and dark spot are some of the largest natural brightness variations of any object in the solar system, Robbins writes in a blog post for NASA.
The vantage point rises to a height of about 150 miles and turns east, with Pluto’s north pole to the left, the so-called heart the focal point, and older, more cratered areas standing out in marked contrast to the younger glaciers of the “heart’s” left lobe, Sputnik Planum, according to Robbins. The flight rises to a height of more than 1,500 miles above the planet’s surface.