Pluto, Charon images reveal dwarf planets' colours, strange dark spot

The closest looks yet at the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon Charon have revealed some mysterious features, which scientists will get a closer look at during a coming flyby.

Spacecraft scheduled for close flyby on July 14

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, seen in an artist's impression, is the size of a piano and only requires the power needed for two 100-watt light bulbs to conduct its Pluto mission. (NASA/Reuters)

The closest looks yet at the dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon Charon have revealed new mysterious features, baffling scientists.

Images captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in recent weeks show light and dark landscapes on Pluto's surface, a "bright fringe" of what could be frost evaporating from its pole, and a strange dark spot on one of Charon's poles.

Images captured by the NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in recent weeks show light and dark landscapes on Pluto's surface, a 'bright fringe' of what could be frost evaporating from its pole. ( NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

"Wow, I don't think anyone expected Charon to reveal a mystery like dark terrains at its pole. Who ordered that?" said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the mission at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., in a statement.

New Horizons is scheduled to make a close flyby of Pluto and its moons on July 14.

Charon is seen in a raw (left) and 'deconvoluted' or sharpened image, which shows a dark spot on its pole. Deconvolution can occasionally introduce 'false' details, so the finest details in these pictures will need to be confirmed by images taken from closer range in the next few weeks. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Stern said the science team is "ecstatic" that during its flyby the spacecraft will face the side of Pluto that includes "every terrain type," both the brightest and darkest areas on the dwarf planet's surface.

Surprise colours

Late last week, video of Pluto and Charon captured by New Horizons revealed that they are completely different colours — Pluto is beige-orange and Charon is grey.

That was a surprise. Lisa Hardaway, a manager with Ball Aerospace, the company that built the camera that shot the colour images, told Discovery News that scientists were expecting Pluto and Charon to be made of the same material, "but they're obviously not."

As of noon ET today, New Horizons was about 24 million kilometres away from Pluto. That's about a sixth of the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Last week, the National Space Society, a non-profit organization "dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization," released a beautiful video offering a preview of what we might see when New Horizons makes its flyby in less than a month. It has been viewed over a million times on YouTube.

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