06/23/2015 09:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

First Color Movies Of Pluto And Its Biggest Moon Are Pretty Spectacular

There's not much in the way of plot, and the images are badly pixelated. But two new videos from NASA's New Horizons mission are thrilling anyway. The brief animations--the mission's first color movies--show the complex "orbital dance" of Pluto and its biggest moon, Charon.

One of the videos is centered on Pluto so that the dwarf planet appears stationary as Charon orbits it (below). The other presents a so-called barycentric view, meaning it shows Pluto and Charon moving around the center of gravity that the two bodies share.

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Pluto-centric view of the orbits of Pluto and its biggest moon, Charon.

Barycentric view of Pluto and Charon.

The grainy videos were assembled from images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft on nine occasions from May 29 through June 3, 2015. They show Pluto as a beige-orange dot doing a cosmic waltz with Charon, which appears as a small gray dot.

"It's exciting to see Pluto and Charon in motion and in color," Alan Stern, the mission's principal investigator, said in a written statement issued by NASA. "Even at this low resolution, we can see that Pluto and Charon have different colors... Exactly why they are so different is the subject of debate."

And it's one debate that might soon be solved. The New Horizons spacecraft--the first ever to Pluto--is scheduled to make its closest approach to the distant dwarf planet on July 14. On that date it will zip by at about 7,800 miles above Pluto's surface.

"Color observations are going to get much, much better, eventually resolving the surfaces of Charon and Pluto at scales of just kilometers," Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist for the mission, said in the NASA statement. "This will help us unravel the nature of their surfaces."

The piano-sized New Horizons probe was launched on Jan. 19, 2006. Its goal is to explore Pluto and its moons as well as objects in the Kuiper Belt, the region of the solar system beyond the planets.



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