|Marco Foronda |||May 14, 2015 09:44 AM EDT|
Approximately 90 million km from reaching Pluto, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft returned a photo of the planet and its four faint moons.
The spacecraft was able to create an animated sequence of five 10-second observations from a distance of more than 55 million miles (88 million kilometers). The images showed all five of Pluto’s known moons: the largest one, Charon, along with its smaller companions Nix and Hydra and the recently-discovered Styx and Kerberos.
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“New Horizons is now on the threshold of discovery. If the spacecraft observes any additional moons as we get closer to Pluto, they will be worlds that no one has seen before,” John Spencer, a member of the mission science team member from the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, said in a statement.
Kerberos and Styx were not discovered until 2011 and 2012, respectively, thanks to contributions to the New Horizons mission from the Hubble Telescope. The spacecraft snapped their photo using its ultra-sensitive Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).
For the sake of comparison, Discovery News pointed out that Charon is 750 miles wide, Nyx is between 29 and 85 miles wide and Hydra is between 37 and 92 miles wide. The uncertain width of each of these smaller moons should become clearer and the readings more precise as the New Horizons spacecraft draws closer to Pluto’s system en route to a July 14 flyby.
New Horizons is expected to make its historic rendezvouses with Pluto in July, but NASA released LORRI images of Nix and Hydra in Feb. to mark the 85th anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto.
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