After traveling more than 3 billion miles through space for eight and a half years, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft finally arrived at Pluto on July 14, 2015. From its closest approach of 7,800 miles, it managed to collect and send back a tremendous amount of data about everyone's favorite dwarf planet. NASA has finally released the sharpest images humanity has ever seen of Pluto's surface.
The black-and-white images revealed that in addition to the vast plains of ice that one would expect on Pluto, the surface also featured mountain ranges that rival the height of the Rocky Mountains here on Earth, as well as craters from impacts out at the edge of the solar system in the Kuiper Belt.
"These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth," NASA's John Grunsfeld explained in a news release. "New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see."
The video flyby features a 50-mile-wide stretch of Pluto's surface in detail that is pretty remarkable. Each pixel represents a span of about 250 feet, allowing researchers to get an unprecedented amount of information about the dwarf planet's topography. While Pluto has been believed to be largely devoid of craters, these images prove the surface is much more textured and diverse than previously thought.
"These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high-resolution window into Pluto's geology," Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission added. "Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we're there already — down among the craters, mountains and ice fields — less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable."
Less than half of the data from New Horizons' rendezvous with Pluto has been received so far, but what has come in is giving scientists plenty to learn over the next several years. It will be a long time before humans have another close encounter with Pluto, and the information gained from this mission will help guide future missions.
NASA stitched together images in order to make an incredible video flyover, which can be viewed here: