The New Horizons NASA Spacecraft on its mission to Pluto, has released images of two of its destination’s moons yesterday, February 18th, which coincidentally, is the day Pluto was discovered exactly 85 years ago in Flagstaff, Arizona’s Lowell Observatory. Two of the moons orbiting Pluto, named Hydra and Nix, have been photographed separately with the images compiled into a short seven-frame film which can be viewed on the NASA website.
Pluto, which was discovered by Professor Clyde Tombaugh on February 18, 1930, was not only one of the most significant space discoveries of the 20th century, but was also an important factor that led to “the discovery of the Kuiper Belt and a new class of planet”, according to the New Horizons principal investigator, Alan Stern. To commemorate this historic achievement, the New Horizons team released images of Hydra and Nix on the anniversary of the Pluto discovery.
The seven frames comprising the short movie are images taken between the dates of January 27 and February 8, using the New Horizon camera called the LORRI, Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager. They were captured 125 million to 115 million miles away from Pluto. Though the dwarf planet was discovered 85 years ago, Hydra and Nix, the first of Pluto’s moons to be spotted by New Horizons, were only discovered in 2005 with the help of the Hubble Telescope.
What we know of the two moons so far is that Hydra orbits the dwarf planet every 38 days, while Nix completes its orbit every 25 days. However, the New Horizons team has not been able to gather data on the diameter and size of these moons – information they hope to collect when the New Horizons probe moves closer to Nix and Hydra in July, which should provide the missions team with close-up images.
Pluto, named after the Roman god of the underworld, was the most awe-inspiring of the planets at the time of its discovery, owing to its great distance from the sun which contributed to its extremely frigid temperatures. Although originally considered a planet, it was relabeled as a dwarf planet back in 2006 to differentiate between bodies that do not have a distinct orbital path. Another example of a dwarf planet is the popular Ceres, which the Dawn probe should enter into orbit of early next month.
Pluto has been identified to have five natural satellites, two of which, named Kerberos and Styx (still following the Roman mythological underworld theme), were only discovered in this decade. These, according to the New Horizons team, should also be photographed during the scheduled flyby in July.
The New Horizons spacecraft and Pluto encounter is scheduled to be on July 14. In the meantime, the team says that they will also be able to provide more and better close-up images of Pluto and its different satellites starting May.