We're so close to Pluto, we're starting to see geologic features on the dwarf planet's surface. In its latest portrait from the New Horizons spacecraft, scientists are able to pick out distant surface formations, including a polygonal band of terrain stretching east-northeast across the planet, and a dark band near the south pole that's now being called 'the whale.'
According to NASA:
"We're close enough now that we're just starting to see Pluto's geology," said New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur, NASA Headquarters in Washington, who's keenly interested in the grey area just above the whale's "tail" feature. "It's a unique transition region with a lot of dynamic processes interacting, which makes it of particular scientific interest."
New Horizons' latest image of Pluto was taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million kilometers) away, with a resolution of 17 miles (27 kilometers) per pixel. At this range, Pluto is beginning to reveal the first signs of discrete geologic features. This image views the side of Pluto that always faces its largest moon, Charon, and includes the so-called "tail" of the dark whale-shaped feature along its equator. (The immense, bright feature shaped like a heart had rotated from view when this image was captured.)
We're nerdtastically excited about Pluto, and so is the science team behind New Horizon's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager:
The best part is, these images are just going to keep getting better and better for the next few days leading up to the historic New Horizons flyby on July 14. After New Horizons makes its closest pass over Pluto's surface, the images we get back will be hundreds of times higher resolution than this one.