NASA’s new false-color images of Pluto and Charon are psychedelic and informative

We’re still a few hours away from receiving confirmation that New Horizons experienced its Pluto flyby, but that doesn’t mean the team behind the spacecraft is twiddling its thumbs. This afternoon, the team, led by lead investigator Alan Stern, released this exaggeratedly colored savage image of Pluto and its larger moon, Charon.

It’s a very different look than the first light-colored view of Pluto we received this morning. This stunning image was taken by the New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), but it was colorized with data from Ralph, another of the spacecraft’s cameras.

New images shed colorful new light on Pluto and Charon

Ralph, who can take both visible and infrared light images, has a wider field of view than LORRI, so New Horizons had to get close to Pluto before the camera could resolve any usable detail. These new images, which match the resolution we saw LORRI capture last week, were taken at 3:38 a.m.ET on July 13. The team received them on the ground later that day at 12:25 p.m. ET, and their arrival prompted this cryptic tweet from Kimberly Ennico Smith, Team New Horizons scientist:

The image was first achieved by taking a photo with each of the three color filters (red, blue, and green) found on the Ralph Camera. These images were then combined and the resulting colors were enhanced. This process allows the team to get a more detailed view of the surface features – false colors help scientists understand the boundaries of different geological regions. Take the “heart” on Pluto, for example. In this morning’s image, it looks like a large, homogeneous region. In the exaggerated color image, however, you can see a distinct separation between the left and right sides. The false color image suggests that the two sides may be made of different materials.

The feature that stands out the most in Charon’s new images is the polar dark spot. While this was visible in many black and white LORRI images, we can see here that it is tinged with red, suggesting the presence of organic hydrocarbons. But how did these hydrocarbons get there? The main theory of the New Horizons team is that the material from Pluto escaped from the dwarf planet and was sucked into the pole of Charon. We’ll see if that idea is correct in the weeks and months to come as New Horizons returns more data.

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