From Pluto, with plutoid love and affection – Times LIVE

And it appears that the dwarf planet shares their affection after the closest image ever taken shows a giant heart-shaped area.

The image was taken on Tuesday, when the spacecraft was less than eight million kilometres from Pluto and is the first received since a July 4 anomaly that sent the spacecraft into safe mode.

The bright heart-shaped area is about 1900km across and scientists are puzzled about what it might be.

But all could be revealed on Tuesday when New Horizons gets to its closest point and does a flyby.

“The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today,” said Jeff Moore, geology, geophysics and imaging team leader of Nasa’s Ames Research Centre. “It will be incredible.”

Next week the probe will arrive at the dwarf planet carrying the ashes of discoverer Clyde Tombaugh.

The mission is hoping to answer fundamental questions about the ninth rock from the Sun and will send back the first close-up pictures of our elusive neighbour. It could even help explain the origin of life on Earth.

Tombaugh died on January 17 1997, nine years and two days before New Horizon’s launch, but one of his final requests was for his ashes to be sent into space.

A small container carrying his remains is affixed to the insideof the upper deck of the probe bearing the inscription: “Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone’.”

Since Tombaugh discovered Pluto it has been one of the most contentious bodies in the solar system, with astronomers divided as to whether it is a planet, a dwarf planet, an escaped moon of Neptune or even a comet.

It was fitting that when New Horizon set off in January 2006, carrying Tombaugh’s ashes, Pluto was still considered a planet. But months later it was downgraded to a dwarf planet or “plutoid” and is now known unceremoniously as “asteroid number 134340″. But scientists say the $700-million mission is “incredibly important”.

New Horizons was close enough to observe Pluto and its giant moon Charon on January 15. It has been sampling the solar wind, magnetic field, dust and atmospheric conditions in recent days.


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