MOL

Washington

Nasa has released the first movie of its probe’s approach to Pluto. Experts say the ‘unusual’ images reveal far more detail than they expected - including white markings across the planet.  They say the new images, from 11 million miles away, are ‘certainly whetting our appetite for what’s to come.’ ‘It’s a bit unusual to see so much surface detail at this distance,’ said New Horizons co-investigator William McKinnon of the Geology and Geophysics Investigation Team, Washington University in Saint Louis. ‘What’s especially noteworthy is the level of detail in both bodies. ‘It’s certainly whetting our appetite for what’s to come.’The images were taken between June 23 and June 29, 2015, as New Horizons’ distance to Pluto decreased from a distance of 15 million to 11 million miles (24 million to 18 million kilometers). Six high-resolution black-and-white images from New Horizons’ LORRI instrument were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to produce the movie.

Start the countdown: It is now less than two weeks until the New Horizons spacecraft makes its historic arrival at Pluto on 14 July. With each passing day, new images of the fascinating dwarf planet emerge - and the latest, in colour, showing two distinct faces on the world and a series of interesting spots. Nasa has also given the all clear for the spacecraft to remain on its current course, after a search for potentially lethal debris in its path found nothing of note. 

The latest images of Pluto and Charon were taken by New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri) and the Ralph instrument. The dwarf planet and its moon are seen in approximate true colour, how they would appear to a human in the same position. Roughly half of Pluto is imaged, meaning the features at the bottom are near its equatorial line. 

And it is these features, specifically the spots, which has piqued the interest of astronomers. The spots are each about 300 miles (480km) in diameter and have a surface area roughly the size of Missouri. They also appear to be strangely consistent in their spacing and size, forming a band across the planet as seen in the images.