New Horizons’ Pluto Map Reveals Strange Bands and Patches

One could safely assume most readers didn’t covet their Moon or Mars Maps in their childhood. But there’s always a chance to make amends for your kids’. A new map of Pluto that scientists have constructed from images captured by the famed spacecraft New Horizons has just hit the proverbial press.

Pluto map is a flat representation made from spherical pieces

The map unravels visible pieces of the sphere onto a flat, projected representation, revealing more features scientists have begun to take note of in recent days. They include patches near the equator which alternate between light and dark, and a singular, long, dark band scientists have named “the whale.”

Moby Dick’s Darker Cousin is only the beginning in a string of photos and data

New Horizons, the spacecraft that captured Moby Dick’s darker cousin, is only seven days away from its groundbreaking flyby of Pluto. New Horizons will pass Pluto’s surface at an altitude of about 13,000km. In this first pass, it will snap a veritable plethora of images and other scientific data. But these first pictures of the dwarf planet will be of a sophistication of an entirely different order than those of the Moon, or even our first studies of Mars. New Horizons will capture 5,000 times the data that Mariner did during its visit to the Red Planet. Moreover, targeted areas on Pluto’s surface will be displayed at a resolution better than 100 meters per pixel.

Images available so far are of much lower resolution, being assembled from a combination of the probe’s high-resolution (black and white) LORRI camera and its lower-resolution color imager, which we lovingly refer to as Ralph. Even so, we can still see a slew of different characteristics on the dwarf planet.

A white area near the center of Pluto will be directly below New Horizons upon the probe’s closest pass. On the east side is a splotchy place that’s been the root of the most heated discussion to the present moment. No one seems to know what the blobby patches are, but every one of them is a few kilometers in diameter.

Whale’s “tail” has weird craterlike donut

In what’s called the whale’s “tail,” is an object seeming to take the form of a doughnut. This could actually be an impact crater or a volcano, but at this low resolution either interpretation is equally warranted, i.e., is really unwarranted.

New Horizons has totally recovered from its 4th of July weekend hiccup, when it accidentally entered protective safe mode and dropped its connection with Earth for over an hour. The engineers behind New Horizons’ software have stated they understand the cause of the computer glitch, and have ruled it out of the realm of possibility for the next few days. Now let’s hope the Plutonians haven’t hacked our probe.


With so much awesome stuff happening in the world of space science, who has time to worry about home security?