NASA's New Horizons spacecraft took hundreds of images of Pluto this winter and we've been getting them all back in one of the most glorious data dumps astro nerds have ever borne witness to. But for some of us, still images simply aren't enough. We want to fly over Pluto, too, damnit!
Thankfully, NASA understands this. The animation below, created by Stuart Robbins of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, stitches together the latest Pluto images as of 11 September into a soaring flyover of the tiny, weird, beautiful dwarf world that captured our hearts this winter.
We begin our tour over the jagged Norgay Montes, an ice mountain range comparable to the Rockies, at a height of about 193km. We travel north across the mysteriously textured plains of Sputnik Planum (the bright area to the left) and Cthulhu Regio (the darker, cratered region to the right), all the while gaining altitude. Finally, we turn east and gain altitude fast, soaring to a height of over 2414km.
"The concept of this animation arose from a desire to showcase the most recent imagery received from the spacecraft and the huge variety of terrain types that we see on Pluto," Robbins writes in a blog post. "I can hardly wait until we get even better imagery — up to seven times better pixel scale — that's still to come of select areas of the surface and to see what new surprises Pluto has in store."
We can hardly wait either — but alas, waiting is the name of the game when you're downlinking data over the solar system's worst dial up connection. The New Horizons spacecraft began its main data downlink earlier this month and it will continue sending data home until August 2016.
By that point, New Horizons will hopefully be well on its way to the Kuiper Belt, where it will continue unpacking the mysteries of the cold, dark, distant reaches of our solar system.