Washington: NASA has released a stunning image of Pluto's smallest moon 'Styx' captured by the New Horizons spacecraft from a distance of 391,000 miles (631,000 km).
New images from the New Horizons also reveal the size and shape of Styx - the faintest of Pluto’s five moons.
According to NASA, the Styx images downlinked on October 5, 2015, were taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 13, approximately 12.5 hours before New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto.
At that time, the spacecraft was still 391,000 miles (631,000 kilometers) from Styx, making it difficult even for the powerful LORRI camera to see details on such a small moon.
“Although it may not look like much, the new composite image of Styx reveals a highly-elongated satellite, roughly 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) across in its longest dimension and 3 miles (5 kilometers) in its shortest dimension,” said Dr Hal Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, a project scientist for the New Horizons mission.
Styx’s measured brightness, combined with this new size estimate, suggest this tiny moon has a highly reflective, icy surface, similar to what was previously found for two of Pluto’s other small moons, Nix and Hydra.
Using the new images, together with other data from New Horizons, researchers hopes to unravel more details about this small moon’s shape and rotational properties.
“Ultimately, we hope to learn more about all four of Pluto’s small moons, to understand their similarities and differences, how they formed, and how they evolved,” said Dr Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, principal investigator for New Horizons.
Styx was discovered using the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012, when New Horizons was more than two-thirds into its voyage to Pluto.
New Horizons spacecraft made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, becoming the first probe to study the dwarf planet up close even as people around the world celebrated the historic moment.
The spacecraft is currently 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth, with all systems healthy and operating normally.