Being a spacecraft has peculiar benefits – one is that you get to see the most distant moons in our solar system and take pictures of them! Now NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons is coming close enough to get photos taken of the two last and very recently discovered moons of Pluto.
Pluto has five moons, known as Kerberos, Styx, Hydra, Nix and Charon (if someone hadn’t paid attention during Greek mythology classes they would have been called a letter and a number – Here’s to storytelling and the love of history!).
They were only discovered very recently: The moon giant Charon was spotted in July 2013 by New Horizons itself, up until January this year, when little Nix could be identified as the last one of the five. Scientists still can’t be sure however, if there are any more moons that they haven’t yet laid our spacecraft eyes on.
The photos of Kerberos and Styx was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager LORRI, a camera that is a part of the New Horizons equipment, between April 25 and May 1, where each observation is put together from five 10-second exposures of the Plutonian moon system and Pluto itself. Just getting the images dark enough and remove all the background lights from stars in the background, so the moons could be spotted, took a lot of photo editing, but it paid off, as we now have perhaps the last, physically defining pieces of our solar system puzzle in place.
“New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery”, mission science team member John Spencer says. “If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before.” Spencer works at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and they have also celebrated the fact that they managed to take these images from a distance of 55 million miles, which is quite an amazing accomplishment in itself.
A super durable and multitasking craft such as New Horizons, capable of reaching the very end of our solar system while performing different submissions, has not built itself: APL, the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory has constructed the spacecraft and also operates it, as well as managing the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.