Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

March 11, 1996

Hubble Telescope Maps Pluto
Credit: A. Stern (SwRI), M. Buie (Lowell Observatory), NASA, ESA,

Explanation: No spacecraft from Earth has yet explored Pluto but astronomers have found ways of mapping its surface. A stunning map of this distant, diminutive planet, the first based on direct images, was revealed late last week in a Hubble Space Telescope press release. Above are two opposite hemisphere views of the computer constructed map of Pluto's surface (north is up). The grid pattern is due to the computer technique used where each grid element is over 100 miles across. The map is based on Hubble images made when Pluto was a mere 3 billion miles distant. It shows strong brightness variations - confirming and substantially improving upon ground based observations. While the brightness variations may be due to surface features like craters and basins they are more likely caused by regions of nitrogen and methane frost. The frost regions should show "seasonal" changes which can be tracked in future Hubble observations. Yes, Pluto is a planet even though it is only 2/3 the size of Earth's Moon!

Tomorrow's picture: The Colourful Clouds of Rho Ophiuchi

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA)
NASA Technical Rep.: Jay Norris. Specific rights apply.
A service of: LHEA at NASA/ GSFC
&: Michigan Tech. U.