NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is currently sending back the most detailed pictures of Pluto ever taken. But if the images from the historic flyby look just a little familiar to you, there might be a good reason why.
A new image of the dwarf planet tweeted by NASA yesterday bears a striking resemblance to a painting of Pluto created in 1979 – before any detailed information about this far-off celestial body was known and it was nothing more than a tiny blur through even the best telescopes.
Conspiracy theorists, start your engines.
Take a look at the two images side by side. The one on the right is a three-decades-old painting!
The main question is this: How could the artist, astronomical painter Don Dixon, obtain detailed information about Pluto 36 years ago? It may seem easy to paint a moon-like structure, but remember how little was known about the (former) ninth planet in the solar system. This NASA animation shows shows what Pluto looked like from the Lowell Observatory when it was first discovered, all the way up to the latest images from New Horizons.
Dixon seems shocked by the similarities himself, saying on his art Web site, “every so often an astronomical artist gets lucky” and “I’m astounded by how close I came to accurately depicting Pluto in 1979.”
(A full-color photo of Pluto taken July 13 by New Horizons. Dixon didn’t foresee the heart-shaped spot on the surface, but otherwise his painting is on the money. Credit: NASA)
Dixon went on to state, “I’d like to claim prophetic powers, but the painting was guided by the reasonable assumption that Pluto likely has a periodically active atmosphere that distributes powdery exotic frosts into lowland areas. The reddish color of the higher features is caused by tholins – hydrocarbons common in the outer solar system. The partial circular arcs would be caused by flooding of craters by slushy exotic ices. Pluto is apparently more orange than I painted it, however; I assumed the exotic ices would push colors more into the whites and grays.”
Do you buy it?
Some believe Dixon might had some help envisioning Pluto from Clyde W. Tombaugh, the astronomer credited with Pluto’s discovery in 1930. Dixon’s painting was used as the cover art for Tombaugh and Patrick Moore’s astronomy book Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto.
In the meantime, here’s the latest captures from NASA’s historic mission, which show mountains of ice on Pluto that are as high as the Rocky Mountains and a prominent heart-shaped region, now named after Tombaugh (whose ashes are aboard the spacecraft). There’s even (nitrogen) snow on Pluto!
Stay tuned for more of these historic images as the New Horizons spacecraft continues to fly past Pluto and it’s moons for about two more full rotations, or 12 Earth days. For minute-by-minute updates, check out the New Horizons Twitter account.