NASA’s New Horizons mission once again changed the way scientists view Pluto. Yet as publishers scramble to rewrite textbooks, our footage of the dwarf planet holds up remarkably well.

Previously, our most detailed view of Pluto came from the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits 347 miles above Earth’s surface—or some three billion miles from Pluto. Understandably, the resulting images were not terribly detailed, despite several billion dollars in magnification:

Hubble photo of PlutoNASA, ESA, and M. Buie/Southwest Research Institute

The New Horizons probe changed all this by “zooming with its feet” (or, as engineers might put it, “with rockets and thrusters”) and moving several billion miles closer to its subject. Launched into space at a speed of 37,000 miles per hour, the probe traveled for nearly ten years before passing a mere 7,800 miles from Pluto’s surface. In terms of astrophotography, it essentially became an interplanetary macro lens.

The composites below came from its final two days of approach and illustrate the massive difference just one day of space travel makes. (The second object in the top photo is Pluto’s moon, Charon.)

NewHorizons photo of Pluto and CharonNASA, ESA, and M. Buie/Southwest Research InstituteNASA, ESA, and M. Buie/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto_NewHorizons2-compressorNASA, ESA, and M. Buie/Southwest Research InstituteNASA, ESA, and M. Buie/Southwest Research Institute

Why the change in color? NASA didn’t spend $720 million just to take pretty photos—or even to take accurate photos, in terms of what the human eye might see. Instead, these captures will be used to further knowledge of Pluto’s formation and geographical structure. In fact, many of the probe’s “cameras” only see in black and white, while others detect ultraviolet light invisible to the eye.

The “photographs” NASA shares are actually composite images from multiple frames, with false color added in post and exaggerated to highlight differences in surface features.

Remove the ultraviolet layers and dial back the false color, and the way Pluto might look to the naked eye could be remarkably close to the way it’s looked in our library all along.

Motion background of dwarf planet Pluto in spaceMotion background of dwarf planet Pluto in space


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