NASA Shares Artist's Rendering of Pluto Bathed in Moonlight

Posted on July 12, 2015

Artist's rendering of Pluto bathed in moonlight from Charon

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is rapidly approaching Pluto and will make its closest flybay in less than two days, on July 14. One of its targets is a shadowy winter region of Pluto that is in the midst of an extremely long winter. The artist's rendering above shows Charon rising over the frozen south pole surface of Pluto.

NASA says the Sun has not not shown on Pluto's frigid south polar region in over 20 years and will not shine for another 80 years. The only light this cold secluded region of Pluto gets is starlight and moonlight from Charon, the dwarf planet's largest moon. Charon itself is illuminated by the Sun but the sunlight is 1,000 times dimmer than it is on Earth.

When New Horizons makes its flyby on July 14 it will share the very first images of the night region of Pluto. The images will be made with the LORRI and Ralph instruments on New Horizons shortly after it makes its closest approach.

NASA astronomers say a moonlit stroll on Pluto's Charon-facing side would be dim but not so dark that you wouldn't see objects around you: "At your feet, the icy surface - resembling a sooty snow bank - would be bathed in Charon's faint glow. The area around you would be dim, but not so dark that you would bump into things. On your moonlight stroll on Pluto you'd notice that your shadow, cast by Charon, is much less defined than your shadow from moonlight on Earth. A wisp of cloud might even pass in front of Charon as you look up."

Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist, says in a statement, "The only way for New Horizons to observe Pluto's elusive night region is to see it in Charonshine. It's almost time for the big reveal, and I couldn't be more excited."

A hi-res version of the above image can be found here.

Image: JHUAPL / SwRI