It's been a year since New Horizons flew by Pluto and we got our first up-close image of the unique dwarf planet after the nine-year, 3 billion-mile journey. Now scientists behind NASA's New Horizons mission have put together the footage they obtained in a video that emulates what it might be like to land there.
Using more than 100 images taken by powerful telescopic cameras over the six weeks during which New Horizons approached and flew by, the video starts with a view of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. It continues dropping closer and closer to the planet's surface, finally "landing" on the edge of the Sputnik Planum.
“Just over a year ago, Pluto was just a dot in the distance,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) said in a NASA article about the video. “This video shows what it would be like to ride aboard an approaching spacecraft and see Pluto grow to become a world, and then to swoop down over its spectacular terrains as if we were approaching some future landing.”
I'd suggest watching the video several times, the first just for the sheer joy of it. While many of us have seen images of the planet before, there's something extra-fun about imagining that you're on a spaceship that's going to land on a planet that lives in the incredibly distant Kuiper Belt system.
And this isn't a Hollywood/CGI version of what that landing might be like — it's all real images. For me, that makes it more exciting, even though I know the images were manipulated a little bit. “We had to interpolate some of the frames based on what we know Pluto looks like to make it as smooth and seamless as possible. It’s certainly fun to see this and think what it would feel like to approach a landing on Pluto!” said Constantine Tsang, a New Horizons scientist at SwRI who worked with Stern to create the movie.
The second and third time I watched the video, I examined all the details of the small planet, wondering which areas would be interesting to explore, and imagining what I'd see across the landscape once I landed, based on the view from above. It's a fun mental game to play — and one day, maybe we'll get to see those images from a landed human exploration vehicle.