Using 100 images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft over the course of six weeks, NASA has produced a colourised video showing what it would be like to approach and land on Pluto. Prepare yourself for a marvellous trip.
To create the video, NASA scientists had to deduce Pluto’s actual colours from the many black-and-white photos taken by the probe. Following that step, they stacked lo-res colour images taken by New Horizon’s Ralph instrument on top of the monochrome photos to glean the best possible interpretation of what an approach to Pluto would actually look like.
The video starts with a distant view of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, and finishes with a “landing” on the shoreline of Sputnik Planitia, a bright, ice-covered basin. It gives us a chance to see Pluto in all its colourised glory, showcasing the red, brown, and copper hues characteristic of the dwarf planet.
The deep red colouring in Pluto’s southwestern hemisphere is likely caused by hydrocarbons called tholins, which form in Pluto’s atmosphere. After exposure to direct sunlight, its reddish ice turns to vapour and drifts toward the north pole, where it regains its icy form on the surface. This pattern of melting and freezing is probably why we’re seeing distinct latitudinal colour bands.
New Horizons took these photos over the course of six weeks leading up to and culminating in its historic flyby of Pluto on July 14th, 2015. Its powerful telescopic cameras were able to spot features as small as a football pitch.