This morning, we woke up to a world forever changed. Well, that’s technically true of every morning, but this morning, NASA gave the world a first look at the surface of Pluto. That in itself is both cool and newsworthy; that the space agency chose Instagram as the venue for the reveal is icing on the cake. Rather than release initial images on the agency’s own website, as is usually the case, NASA partnered with the Facebook-owned photo sharing app for the sneak peek of this mysterious non-planet.
The image released this morning was captured by the New Horizons spacecraft, which did a ‘fly-by’ closer to Pluto than ever before. At a distance of 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface, the craft snapped the initial sneak peek shot around 4 PM EDT on July 13. The Instagram image shows a distinctive heart shape covering about one-third of the surface, which NASA refers to as Pluto’s “message of love.”
Additional images of the approach are posted in the New Horizons photo gallery on the NASA website, like the slightly blurry one posted above, released yesterday. New Horizons will continue beaming down new images throughout its mission, and a NASA spokesman suggested the public might even get to see pictures of Pluto in color as soon as this afternoon.
NASA chose to release the ‘preview’ on Instagram to work up a social media buzz in advance of the press conference. The post went up around 7AM ET, about an hour before the high-resolution images were published on the NASA website. To the untrained eye, the images of Pluto look similar to photos of our own Moon, but little is known about the former planet. Experts describe Pluto has having a variety of different terrains, including deserts and chasms. NASA continues to be really interested in Pluto for that very reason. Diverse terrain suggests the possibility of other things of interest to NASA, like water and living organisms.
One of the most questions asked during this morning’s press conference was undoubtedly, “When can we go back to Pluto?” The resounding answer from NASA officials is “We don’t know” but that response comes with chuckles and a quip about building a secret landing craft, which may or may not have been entirely a joke. The bottom line, the NASA team admits, is 99 percent of the data collected during the New Horizons mission is still aboard the craft, and will take years to review and evaluate–all of which must be done before a ground mission comes to fruition.
Images via NASA