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Honolulu, Hawaii – October 11, 2007:
Almost 30 years after the discovery of Pluto's large moon, Charon, a
University of Hawaii
astronomer has used a ground-based telescope to take an image of the Pluto system
that exceeds the sharpness possible with the
Hubble Space Telescope.
"Several favorable factors occurred simultaneously
to yield these spectacular images of the Pluto system,"
said Dr. David Tholen,
who performed the observations during the early evening
of September 5 using the
adaptive optics system
on one of
Mauna Kea's twin
"The natural seeing was better than average that night,
more sensitive wavefront sensors were installed on the telescope,
and Pluto was at its maximum brightness,
thereby giving the improved adaptive optics system
more light with which to work its magic,"
The adaptive optics system uses a deformable mirror and sensors that allow it to compensate for turbulence in Earth's atmosphere that normally blurs the light from celestial bodies. The new images, which have a resolution of about 35 milliarcseconds, are nearly diffraction limited at the 1.6 µm wavelength used for the exposures. They are about 20 times sharper than the images of Pluto taken thirty years ago.
Altogether, Tholen took 16 images of the Pluto system during one hour on the
When he combined all 16 images to form a single image, Nix and Hydra,
Pluto's small satellites discovered with the
Hubble Space Telescope
in 2005, became clearly visible.
The new satellites are both about visual magnitude 23.5
compared with 14th magnitude for Pluto.
"It is our intent to obtain several more images of the Pluto system,
hopefully with this same level of quality,
so that we can track Nix and Hydra completely around Pluto several times,"
"By making extremely precise measurements of the satellites' positions,
we will determine their masses by detecting the tiny displacements
caused by their mutual gravitational attraction.
Once the masses are in hand, we'll be able to say something
more definitive about how big these new satellites are."
Astronomers have estimated that Nix and Hydra are less than 100 km in diameter, compared with 1212 km for Charon and about 2300 km for Pluto. Scientists planning the 2015 flyby of Pluto with NASA's New Horizons spacecraft are intensely interested in the results. Something as simple as selecting the proper exposure time to snap images of Nix and Hydra with New Horizons depends on knowing how big they are and how reflective their surfaces are," said Tholen. "One of our goals is to have those answers well in advance of the flyby."
The Pluto system:
This image combines all 16 exposures, showing Pluto's new satellites Nix (left) and Hydra (right) as the small dots in the upper right.
The Pluto system moved with respect to the background stars during the one hour of observations, leaving the stars trailed in this image.
Both Nix and Hydra are about 5000 times fainter than Pluto, so the region around Pluto and Charon was reduced in brightness so that all four objects could be shown individually in a single image.
Image: David Tholen
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