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Pluto's First Picture

(January 4, 1997)
On CNN's Headline News, they had a report talking about the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The CNN report said that HST was the 'first telescope to take a picture of Pluto'. Oops! They appear to have fumbled the original Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) press release. The director of Public Outreach at STScI sent me the actual press release text:

"This is the first image-based surface map of the solar system's most remote planet, Pluto. This map was assembled by computer image processing from four separate images of Pluto's disk taken with the European Space Agency's (ESA) Faint Object Camera (FOC) aboard NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble imaged nearly the entire surface, as Pluto rotated on its axis in late June and early July 1994."

Pluto was discovered using a telescopic photograph back in 1930, 60 years before Hubble was launched. Of course, Pluto was just another star-like image on the original photographs. What HST did was get direct, resolved images of the surface of Pluto (meaning you can actually see features on the surface of the planet). Resolved maps were made even earlier than this: Buie, Tholen and Horne, using ground based imaging, were able to make a crude map of the surface of Pluto some years ago. Pluto's moon Charon went through a series of eclipses a few years ago, and they used this to get a map of the bright and dark areas of the surface. So their maps were not direct images, but maps inferred by the change in brightness during the mutual eclipses. HST made the first direct, resolved images.

Learn more about Pluto at The Pluto Homepage, which also has links to other Pluto sites.
The Hubble Space Telescope images of Pluto are also available, with a text description of the images.
Text of press releases from STScI are also available on-line.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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