NASA has stated that its New Horizons spacecraft has caught two of Pluto’s moons on camera as they circled around the dwarf planet. The images offer the first good view of Pluto’s small moons as the spacecraft closes in on dwarf planet.
In a series of images that were captured by New Horizons, the moons Nix and Hydra are visible at distances ranging from about 125 million to 115 million miles (201 million to 186 million kilometers). The long-exposure images offer New Horizons’ best view yet of these two small moons circling Pluto which Tombaugh discovered at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Feb. 18, 1930. Members of the New Horizons team originally discovered the pair in images from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005, and their names are partly inspired by New Horizon’s initials (N and H).
John Spencer, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and the New Horizons science team member, said, “It’s thrilling to watch the details of the Pluto system emerge as we close the distance to the spacecraft’s July 14 encounter. This first good view of Nix and Hydra marks another major milestone, and a perfect way to celebrate the anniversary of Pluto’s discovery.”
New Horizon team members stated that these moons are tiny, somewhere around 25 to 95 miles across, and pretty close in. Hydra, the outermost of five known moons, orbits Pluto every 38 days from about 40,200 miles away. Meanwhile, Nix is in the middle of the pack and orbits Pluto every 26 days from about 30,260 miles away.
The images of Nix and Hydra were taken using the spacecraft’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Each of the video’s seven frames is a combination of five 10-second exposures. The images were processed to remove the glare from the starry backdrop, though some artifacts (including the streak to the right of Pluto) remain.
Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Chief Scientist at Moon Express, said, “Professor Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto was far ahead its time, heralding the discovery of the Kuiper Belt and new class of planet. The New Horizons team salutes his historic accomplishment.”
New Horizons, which was launched on January 19, 2006, will make its closest pass of Pluto and Charon on July 14 of this year. It is currently 32.39 AU from Earth, which is over 4.84 billion kilometers away.