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Explanation: Pluto is the only one of the nine objects classified as planets until 2006 in our Solar System remaining unphotographed by a passing spacecraft. Distant Pluto and its moon Charon therefore remain somewhat mysterious. In addition to direct imaging by the Hubble Space Telescope, careful tracking of brightness changes that occur as each object eclipses the other have allowed astronomers to build up the above black & white surface maps. These maps depict the face of Pluto (left) that always faces Charon, and the face of Charon that always faces away from Pluto. The rectangular pixels are an artifact of the mapping software. The Pluto-Kuiper Express mission was tentatively planned for launch in 2003 with an expected encounter of Pluto around the year 2012. However, this mission was cancelled for budgetary reasons. A new mission to study Pluto and the Kuiper Belt called New Horizons launched on January 11, 2006, with is expected to fly-by Pluto in July 2015.

Credit: M. W. Buie ( Lowell Observatory), D. J. Tholen (U. Hawaii), and K. Horne (St. Andrews)


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