Using a technology designed for visualizing exoplanets, one astronomer has taken new data from Hubble to construct the clearest image yet of the dwarf planet Pluto.
Pluto was our ninth planet until a few years ago when astronomers around the world decided to shun it and demote it to the status “dwarf planet”. It followed as the result of a rather lively debate on how to classify what a planet is; a debate that momentarily gave us as much as 12 planets, before the astronomers thought that was silly, and dialed it back. I tend to think though, that one of the reasons we were okay with losing Pluto, is because we never really got to know it. The best image we ever had of it was a blurry mess, easily mistaken for a poorly focused closeup of moldy bread.
The blurry image we’ve seen of Pluto in the past, was taken by Hubble between 2002 and 2003. Now, astronomer Abel Mendez Torres has used a piece of software called Scientific Exoplanets Renderer (SER) to create new images of Pluto that, while still not very detailed, are a great leap forward from what we had before. SER is usually used to create images of planets beyond our solar system. It simulates complex stellar transit events and interpret planetary light curves, providing a more detailed image the more data you feed it about the planet. Previously, it has been used for the Visible Paleo-Earth and the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog.
This was the best we could do last time we tried to get a picture of Pluto.
Torres created the new images using albedo (reflection coefficient) maps taken by Hubble in 2010. Since the New Horizons space probe is currently en route to Pluto, the images are going to get a lot better very soon. “We will keep generating better and better representations as we get more data from Pluto, specially from New Horizons,” says Torres. “We also plan to produce more creative versions by adding more surface features. It will be fun to compare our progress, starting from our first image, until the final close-up pictures of Pluto on July 2015.”