Science & Environment

New Horizons: Sharpest images of Pluto's surface

Sputnik Image copyright NASA/JPL-JHU/SWRI
Image caption The rugged water-ice al-Idrisi mountains meet the smooth nitrogen-rich ices of Sputnik Planum

The New Horizons probe has at last returned some of the super-sharp pictures it took of Pluto during its historic flyby in July.

The images released by the US space agency on Friday show details on the surface of the dwarf planet at a resolution better than 80m per pixel.

On Earth at this scale, one could easily discern a city park.

With New Horizons, we see crystal clear views of mountains, craters and smooth ice fields.

"These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on Planet Earth," said John Grunsfeld, the head of Nasa's science directorate.

"New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see."

The probe got to about 12,500km from the surface of the dwarf and acquired a mass of pictures and other instrument data.

But because of the vast separation to Earth, and the modest transmitter on New Horizons, the flow of information back home has been extremely slow.

Image copyright NASA/JPL-JHU/SWRI
Image caption Craters seen about 15 minutes before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto – from a range of just 17,000km

Indeed, it is expected to take until late 2016 to get everything in the probe's memory back on the ground.

The mission team prioritised what it wanted to see first, which included some general impressions of Pluto - the broad context. Now, nearly five months on from the flyby, we are being treated to some spectacularly detailed offerings.

Friday's pictures come from a photographic strip that incorporates a segment of its icy flat terrain informally known Sputnik Planum, and the adjacent rugged al-Idrisi mountains.

"These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto's geology," said New Horizons' chief scientist, Alan Stern, of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

"Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we're there already - down among the craters, ice fields and mountains - less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable."

All the pictures were acquired by New Horizons' telescopic Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (Lorri).

The probe continues to move deeper into space. It is now about 167 million km beyond the dwarf planet and some 5.2 billion km from Earth.

The spacecraft has been put on a course to fly by another object known simply as 2014 MU69. This will occur in just over three years' time.

However, the team does not yet have a budget from the US space agency to operate the probe at the roughly 45km-wide body. The scientists plan to submit a formal request for funding in the next few months.

Image copyright NASA/JPL-JHU/SWRI
Image caption The images released by Nasa have a resolution of 77m to 85m per pixel

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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