Press Release

New Horizons at Pluto and Charon: Movies Revisit the Great Exploration

By SpaceRef Editor
July 16, 2021
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A team of researchers created videos of simulated flights over Pluto and Charon which include some of the sharpest images and topographic data that New Horizons gathered during its historic flyby on July 14, 2015. These are the first “movies” of Pluto and Charon made from the highest-resolution black-and-white image strips, taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), as the spacecraft zipped by at more than 30,000 miles per hour and provided breathtaking views and detailed data on Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, revealing the surfaces of these distant, mysterious worlds at the outer reaches of our solar system.

Moviemaker and New Horizons science team member Dr. Paul Schenk, a research scientist fromUniversities Space Research Association at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, used high-resolution topographic mapping analysis to show surface relief in the nitrogen-laden ice sheet in the Sputnik Planitia impact basin – half of Pluto’s famous “heart” feature.

“These new high-resolution flyover videos are incredible,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute. “They aren’t just scientifically valuable, but they are also engaging, which is why we want to share them with the public.”

According to Schenk, “We have been able to create topographic data at full resolution over these image strips by taking the best New Horizons images of Pluto and Charon and using stereo and shading characteristics These data give us the best possible views of these complex bodies and show areas that experienced resurfacing and geologic activity. These movies simulate what Pluto and Charon might look like from an orbiting manned spacecraft later this century.”

This simulated flight starts near the center of the ice sheet and ends on the rugged ice-carved southeastern rim of the basin 300 miles (500 kilometers) away, where the difference between the highest and lowest points is more than 2 miles (3.5 kilometers). Also prominently visible are the small pits that cover the surface of the otherwise low-relief ice sheet. Schenk also added color data from New Horizons’ Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) to bring out the reddish hues in Pluto’s highlands.

The simulated Charon flyover starts in the low-lying, icy volcanic plains of Vulcan Planitia and ends in fractured northern plains some 300 miles (500 kilometers) away. Prominently visible are several mountains that rise about 1.5-2.5 miles (3-4 kilometers) above the volcanic plains. The images in this narrow strip show surface details as small as about 450 feet (140 meters) across.

New Horizons followed the first exploration of the Pluto system with the farthest flyby in history – and first close-up look at a Kuiper Belt object (KBO) – a flight past Arrokoth on New Year’s Day 2019. Today, from its unique perch in the Kuiper Belt some 4.6 billion miles (7.4 billion kilometers) from Earth, New Horizons is making observations that can’t be made from anywhere else; even the stars look different from the spacecraft’s point of view.

About New Horizons
The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio and Boulder, Colorado, directs the mission via Principal Investigator Stern, and leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston is operated by Universities Space Research Association under a cooperative agreement with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Founded in 1969, under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the U.S. Government, the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) is a nonprofit corporation chartered to advance space-related science, technology and engineering.  USRA operates scientific institutes and facilities, and conducts other major research and educational programs, under Federal funding.  USRA engages the university community and employs in-house scientific leadership, innovative research and development, and project management expertise. More information about USRA is available at

The Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), operated by Universities Space Research Association, was established during the Apollo program to foster international collaboration and to serve as a repository for information gathered during the early years of the space program. Today, the LPI is an intellectual leader in lunar and planetary science. The Institute serves as a scientific forum attracting world-class visiting scientists, postdoctoral fellows, students, and resident experts; supports and serves the research community through newsletters, meetings, and other activities; collects and disseminates planetary data while facilitating the community’s access to NASA science; and engages and excites, and educates the public about space science and invests in the development of future generations of explorers. The research carried out at the LPI supports NASA’s efforts to explore the solar system. More information about LPI is available at

SpaceRef staff editor.