NASA Spacecraft Captures Pluto’s Smallest Moons at 55 Million Miles Distance

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“New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery,” said mission science team member John Spencer, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before.”

Spencer is referring to the images that were released by NASA earlier today and originally taken by the agency’s New Horizons spacecraft between April 25 and May 1, revealing Kerberos and Styx – the smallest and faintest of Pluto’s five known moons.

This marks the first time New Horizons has photographed those two moons, which were discovered in 2011 and 2012, respectively, by New Horizons team members using the Hubble Space Telescope.

Styx circles Pluto every 20 days and, NASA estimates, is just 4 to 13 miles (7 to 21 kilometers) in diameter, while Kerberos orbits Pluto every 32 days and measures approximately 6 to 20 miles (10 to 30 kilometers) in diameter.

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The spacecraft is now within sight of all the known members of the Pluto system – including Pluto’s giant moon Charon, which was detected in July 2013, as well as Pluto’s smaller moons Hydra in July 2014, and Nix in January 2015 – both of which are about 20 to 30 brighter than Styx and Kerberos.

What Are You Seeing in These Pictures?
The picture on the left shows a compilation of four images taken with 10-second (very long) exposures by New Horizons’ most sensitive camera, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). In the center of the frame, you can see an extremely overexposed display of Pluto and Charon, which is causing the black and white streaks extending to the right.

The picture in the middle and the one on the right are extensively processed versions of the first one on the left in an effort to reduce the bright glare of Pluto and Charon and largely remove the dense field of background stars. The image on the right also reveals the positions and orbits of Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra – their positions being exactly where they were predicted to be, according to NASA.

What Do These Picture Mean for the Mission?
“Detecting these tiny moons from a distance of more than 55 million miles is amazing, and a credit to the team that built our LORRI long-range camera and John Spencer’s team of moon and ring hunters,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator at Southwest Research Institute.

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Using these images, the team of scientists can now search for new moons or rings that might threaten the spacecraft on its passage through the Pluto system allowing them to refine their techniques ahead of time. This is crucial to complete the mission successfully, as the spacecraft and its operating crew will only get one shot during its scheduled flyby on July 14 at collecting as much data around Pluto as quickly as possible.

Pluto, known as the largest body of the Kuiper Belt (even though smaller than our moon), is the last planet in our solar system that has so far not been explored. NASA fittingly calls it the final chapter in “a five-decade-long era of reconnaissance,” which began in the early 1960s with the exploration of Venus and Mars, followed by Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn in the 1970s and finally Uranus and Neptune in the 1980s.

“Nothing like this has been done in a quarter-century, and nothing like this is planned by any space agency, ever again,” Stern concludes.

To learn more about the New Horizons mission and what we know so far, head over to our previous article right here.

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All Images Copyright © 2015 by NASA

 

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