Pluto has a heart after all, discovered in the final days before a historic encounter that will mark the culmination of an eight-year journey. Already, the system is surprising astronomers with unusual sights.
New Horizons was launched in 2006, at a time when Pluto was still considered to be a major planet, marking the boundaries of our Solar System. As the vehicle raced toward its far-flung rendezvous, many people on Earth felt heartbroken as the International Astronomical Union (IAU) downgraded Pluto to the status of a dwarf planet. As the spacecraft finally began to approach its intended target, the dwarf planet seemed to forgive the human race for its dishonor, showing off a heart for astronomers.
Never before has a spacecraft from Earth explored the system of bodies that surround Pluto. When New Horizons makes its closest approach to the dwarf planet on July 14, it will view the heart-shaped feature in detail 500 times greater than was seen in the first photograph of the display. As the people of the east coast of the United States drink coffee, preparing for the morning, New Horizons will be viewing Pluto with the same detail as a spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
On July 4, 2015, the vehicle encountered a glitch that put the spacecraft into safe mode. This problem was later found to be due to attempting to execute too many commands at once. Mission planners were able to restore New Horizons to full functionality, which was soon rewarded by the discovery of the extraterrestrial Valentine in July. Of course, with surface temperatures on Pluto ranging between 387 and 369 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, any time of year on Pluto feels like February.
"The image was taken on July 7, when the spacecraft was just under 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) from Pluto, and is the first to be received since the July 4 anomaly that sent the spacecraft into safe mode," NASA reports.
Astronomers believe the heart, measuring 1,200 miles from side to side, is formed from frost, which could portend an icy reception from Pluto. Prior to the discovery of the heart, New Horizons spotted an odd pair of dark features on the dwarf planet, resembling Fudgie the Whale swimming away from a doughnut.
Pluto is known to have at least five moons, but astronomers may still find a few more small satellites orbiting within the system.
Mission planners believe the anomaly on July 4 lost just one percent of the total amount of data scheduled to be collected between July 4 and 16.
"We're delighted with the New Horizons response to the anomaly. Now we're eager to get back to the science and prepare for the payoff that's yet to come," said Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science.
After New Horizons completes its nearly decade-long journey as the first visitor from Earth ever to visit Pluto, the vehicle will continue on to examine one or more objects in the far-distant Kuiper Belt.