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Click to enlargeHubble Surface of Pluto Photo

Buy this Surface of Pluto space photo. High quality Hubble picture, slide, or Duratrans backlit transparency. NASA photograph H96-09a2. Wide variety of sizes.
Click to see selection as Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) - March 11, 1996


The never-before-seen surface of the distant planet Pluto is resolved in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope picture, taken with the European Space Agency's (ESA) Faint Object Camera (FOC) aboard Hubble. Discovered in 1930, Pluto has always appeared as nothing more than a dot of light in even the largest earth-based telescopes because Pluto's disk is much smaller than can be resolved from beneath the Earth's turbulent atmosphere. Pluto is 2/3 the size of Earth's Moon but 1,200 times farther away. Viewing surface detail is as difficult as trying to read the printing on a golf ball located thirty-three miles away!

Hubble imaged nearly the entire surface of Pluto, as it rotated through its 6.4-day period, in late June and early July 1994. This image shows that Pluto is an unusually complex object, with more large-scale contrast than any planet, except Earth. Pluto itself probably shows even more contrast and perhaps sharper boundaries between light and dark areas than is shown here, but Hubble's resolution (just like early telescopic views of Mars) tends to blur edges and blend together small features sitting inside larger ones. North is up. Each square pixel (picture element) is more than 100 miles across. At this resolution, Hubble discerns roughly 12 major "regions" where the surface is either bright or dark.

The tile pattern is an artifact of the image enhancement technique. Some of the variations across Pluto's surface may be caused by topographic features such as basins, or fresh impact craters. However, most of the surface features unveiled by Hubble, including the prominent northern polar cap, are likely produced by the complex distribution of frosts that migrate across Pluto's surface with its orbital and seasonal cycles and chemical byproducts deposited out of Pluto's nitrogen-methane atmosphere. This picture was taken in blue light when Pluto was at a distance of 3 billion miles from Earth.

March 7, 1996
Credit: Alan Stern (Southwest Research Institute), Marc Buie (Lowell Observatory), NASA and ESA


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