Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 1999 February 13 - Pluto: The Frozen Planet
Explanation: This portrait of Pluto and its companion Charon was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994. Pluto is usually the most distant planet from the Sun but because of its eccentric orbit Pluto crossed inside of Neptune's orbit in 1979. On Thursday, February 11th, it crossed back out, recovering its status as the most distant of nine planets. Pluto is still considered to be a planet, although very little is known about it compared to other planets. Pluto is smaller than any other planet and even smaller than several other planet's moons. Pluto is probably composed of frozen rock and ice, much like Neptune's moon Triton. Pluto has not yet been visited by a spacecraft, but a mission is being planned for the next decade.
APOD: 1998 July 8 - Mysterious Pluto and Charon
Explanation: Pluto is the only planet in our Solar System remaining unphotographed by a passing spacecraft. Distant Pluto and its moon Charon therefore remain somewhat mysterious. In addition to direct imaging by the Hubble Space Telescope, careful tracking of brightness changes that occur as each object eclipses the other have allowed astronomers to build up the above black & white surface maps. These maps depict the face of Pluto (left) that always faces Charon, and the face of Charon that always faces away from Pluto. The rectangular pixels are an artifact of the mapping software. The Pluto-Kuiper Express mission is tentatively planned for launch in 2003 and should encounter Pluto around the year 2012.
APOD: 1996 March 11 - Hubble Telescope Maps Pluto
Explanation: No spacecraft from Earth has yet explored Pluto but astronomers have found ways of mapping its surface. A stunning map of this distant, diminutive planet, the first based on direct images, was revealed late last week in a Hubble Space Telescope press release. Above are two opposite hemisphere views of the computer constructed map of Pluto's surface (north is up). The grid pattern is due to the computer technique used where each grid element is over 100 miles across. The map is based on Hubble images made when Pluto was a mere 3 billion miles distant. It shows strong brightness variations - confirming and substantially improving upon ground based observations. While the brightness variations may be due to surface features like craters and basins they are more likely caused by regions of nitrogen and methane frost. The frost regions should show "seasonal" changes which can be tracked in future Hubble observations.
Authors & editors:
& Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
NASA Technical Rep.: Jay Norris. Specific rights apply.
A service of: LHEA at NASA/ GSFC
& Michigan Tech. U.