Skywatch

  • November 3, 2005

    Episode 8: A Map of Pluto

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    This newest image of Pluto - our most distant planetary neighbor - shows more detail than any taken before. It might not look like much, but keep in mind that Pluto is only 1,400 miles (2,253 km) across - about two-thirds the size of our Moon - and more than 3.5 billion miles (5.6 billion km) away. It took the Hubble Space Telescope a dozen orbits around the Earth for the Hubble Space Telescope to take the picture, and nearly two years of computer processing to stitch all the information together. The image shows most of the spherical surface of Pluto spread out into a flat map. The red areas indicate methane ice, which seems to be everywhere. The dark areas may be dirty water-ice. Lighter areas indicate nitrogen frost. The bright spot near the center of the map could be a sign of carbon monoxide. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is slated to launch in February 2006 on a mission to Pluto - the only planet never visited by spacecraft. It will take close to 10 years to reach the cold planet. After its arrival in 2015, New Horizons will travel on to investigate Pluto's cousins, the icy bodies known as Kuiper Belt Objects. Many contend that Pluto itself should be classified as a Kuiper Belt Object, not a planet.