NASA probe shows Pluto might have a polar ice cap

The first surface details start to come into view as NASA's New Horizons space probe speeds toward its summer rendezvous with Pluto and its moons.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

It might not look like much, but to astronomers it's the first image that gives a hint of Pluto's surface. NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

It might still be about 70 million miles from Pluto, but that can't stop NASA's eager New Horizons space probe from doing its best to spy on the dwarf planet. For the first time since its launch in 2006 -- and its activation in December of last year -- the plucky probe has returned images that reveal a little bit about Pluto's surface. While we're not talking mountains and craters yet, we are now able to see dark and light spots, one of which might be an icecap at Pluto's pole, according to NASA.

"As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto's visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object," said John Grunsfeld in a statement. Grunsfeld is the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons," he added.

The images were snapped between April 12 and April 18 using the super-powerful Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera on New Horizons. Once the images were received by scientists back here on Earth (which ranges from 2.66 billion to 4.67 billion miles away from Pluto depending on orbital position), a processing technique called image deconvolution sharpened them up to the degree that the dark and light spots became visible -- adding a bit more detail to Pluto than the first color images returned by the probe on April 9.

Also visible in the image is Pluto's moon Charon, which rotates around the dwarf planet once every 6.4 days. The moon looks like a little dot, but that's still impressive considering the probe's distance from it and the fact that Charon is about the size of Texas.

"After traveling more than nine years through space, it's stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes," said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "These incredible images are the first in which we can begin to see detail on Pluto, and they are already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface."

New Horizons is expected to continue returning images with greater and greater detail, as it reaches its closest point with Pluto -- 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) -- on July 14.