Latest Images of Pluto Taken Before The July 4 Anomaly That Sent New Horizons Into Safe Mode

by Sophia Nasr, @Pharaoness

Between July 1st and July 3rd, the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard New Horizons took three high resolution images of Pluto, revealing in even greater detail the four mysterious spots in the dwarf planet's equatorial region. These images were taken before the anomaly on July 4th which sent the spacecraft into safe mode, after which no science data could be taken.

High-resolution views of Pluto sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, including one showing the four mysterious dark spots on Pluto that have captured the imagination of the world. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) obtained these three images between July 1 and 3 of 2015, prior to the July 4 anomaly that sent New Horizons into safe mode. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The left image shows the bright hemisphere of Pluto that New Horizons will see up-close during closest approach on July 14th. The three images together reveal the extent of the dark region that envelops the equatorial region of Pluto. The four dark spots that have intrigued enthusiasts and scientists alike can be seen in Pluto's equatorial region (far right image). Each of these evenly-spaced dark spots are hundreds of kilometers in size. This image was taken only 12.5 million km from Pluto, providing enough of an increase in resolution that bright and dark patches north of the dark spots are beginning to show. The lower edge of Pluto appears jagged in the three images, but this is due to the image processing techniques used to bring out details. Pluto's orientation is indicated just below the images.

A combination of the black-and-white image taken by LORRI on July 3rd, and color data taken by Ralph earlier in the mission. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The final color image is a combination of the black-and-white image taken on July 3rd by LORRI, and the color data from the Ralph instrument taken earlier in the mission.

The latest images were released following a NASA press briefing earlier today. At the briefing, the science team explained the cause of the anomaly that put the spacecraft into safe mode for four days, during which 30 science observations were lost (none that harm the main science objective in any way). As explained by Glen Fountain, New Horizons' project manager on the engineering team, the anomaly was caused by the primary computer on New Horizons trying to do two things at the same time, which caused the processor to overload, switch to the backup computer, and go into safe mode. The backup computer then transmitted a signal to Earth to let scientists know what happened. Scientists quickly figured out the cause of the anomaly and issued the commands required to get back into the primary system and get the spacecraft working on the mission as planned again. New Horizons will be back to work tomorrow (July 7th) at 12:45 PM ET. Emily Lakdawalla has written up a great recap of the briefing, which you can read here.

For the original press release, click here.

Sophia Nasr is an astrophysics student at York University. Actively involved in the astronomical community at York U, she is the President of the Astronomy Club at York University and a member of the team at the York University Observatory. She also is involved in university projects, and holds a position in research on dark matter at York U. Holding scientific outreach dear, Sophia is actively involved in social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, where she shares with the world her passion for the universe and how it works.

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