The wait for more Pluto data is almost over

Several weeks after its flyby of Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft will begin sending data back to Earth on September 5.

Get ready, we’re about to be inundated with postcards from Pluto. On September 5, the New Horizons spacecraft, now more than 62 million kilometers beyond Pluto, will begin a roughly year-long download of all the data it acquired during its brief visit with the dwarf planet in July. Only a few percent of that data was sent to Earth shortly after the encounter.

It’s about time. Without new images and spectra to pore over, a few creative Pluto fans have taken to piecing together their own visions — based on the few images available — of what New Horizons saw as it tore past its target at nearly 50,000 kilometers per hour.

One cinematic recreation comes from planetary scientist Stuart Robbins, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. Robbins used the latest and greatest information available on Pluto’s orbit, shape, and even the lighting to simulate what the flyby looked like for an astronaut hitching a ride on New Horizons:

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A similar view comes from long-time planetary artist Björn Jónsson, who has a particular interest in simulating Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere:

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Gennady Ionov shows us what we would see while staring through New Horizons’ long-range camera the entire time, with a bit of artistic license thrown in as Pluto eclipsed its largest moon, Charon (the spacecraft was busy doing other things at the time):

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Finally, Pluto and Charon frantically wobble about one another in an animation pieced together from navigation images by Matthew Earl. The dwarf planet and its largest satellite orbit a point in the space between them — clearly seen in Earl’s contribution — leading some planetary scientists to think of Pluto and Charon as the solar system’s only binary planet.


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