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UD astronomer says new images of Pluto defy expectations


When Judi Provencal shows visitors what Pluto looks like through the telescope at the Mount Cuba Observatory in Greenville, she finds that they’re often disappointed.

“It’s about a quarter of a size of the Hubble Space Telescope and when you take a picture of Pluto with that, all you can tell is it’s a speck of light, that’s it," said Provencal.

But even the Hubble is too far away to bring this dwarf planet into focus. At a NASA press briefing on Tuesday, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission, Alan Stern, said that the New Horizons probe is a thousand times better than the Hubble. The probe sent back a photo early on Tuesday morning, approximately 7,000 miles away from Pluto's surface.


Provencal, a University of Delaware professor who specializes in stars, said getting this close to Pluto is huge for astronomers.


“This is the first time we’ve really gotten to see the surface of Pluto and this is going to change how we understand how the solar system formed," said Provencal.

And already, she said the first image the probe sent back has defied expectations.

"I don’t think it looks at all what anyone expected it to look. It doesn’t have a lot of craters on the surface and it looks like there’s snow," said Provencal. "It’s actually kind of colorful, it’s got some orange, red and some dark spots and some parts that look a little hilly. This is just not some dead ball of rock just floating around out there and this has something going on on the surface now, it’s still a living place."

Additionally, on Monday, it was revealed that Pluto was bigger than astronomers had predicted, by about 50 miles in diameter. Pluto’s status as a planet was revoked by the International Astronomical Union in 2006, and it is now classified as a dwarf planet.

The New Horizons’ instruments will seek to answer questions about Pluto’s mysterious atmosphere, ice caps and the little-explored area of the Kuiper Belt. The probe will likely expire around 2030, when it’s expected to run out of its plutonium fuel.

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