For the first time ever, images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have revealed bright and dark regions, including a possible polar ice cap, on the surface of the Pluto – and it’s all thanks to a PlayStation CPU.
Yes, the MIPS R3000 CPU that let us hone our mercenary skills as Cloud Strife back in ’97 is now flying through space at 36,373 mph transmitting data from a space probe bound for our favorite once-planet, three-billion miles from Earth. No big deal. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons,” says associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld.
The new images were captured using the spacecraft’s telescopic Long-Range – and we do mean long: 70-million miles long – Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera. Once beamed down to Earth, a technique called image deconvolution, an algorithm-based process that helps sharpen huge amounts of data, helped reveal a more-detailed look at Pluto’s surface than ever before. Ultimately, LORRI’s photos will have a resolution 5,000 times larger than those shot by the Hubble Telescope.
“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” says Grunsfeld.
Because Pluto is tipped on its side, New Horizons is able to keep a watchful eye on its polar regions – one of which appears consistently brighter than other areas. Scientists suspect the pole is covered by a highly reflective cap of nitrogen ice. New Horizons lead scientist Alan Stern notes that it’s rare to see a planet displaying these strong surface markings at such a far distance. “If you had similar images of Mercury, or images of even Mars, you would not see the same kinds of big surface units going by as you do here on Pluto,” he told Reuters. “It’s very promising.”
New Horizons and its PS1 processor has been missioning to Pluto since 2006 – the same year we greedy bastards upgraded to PS3. “After traveling for so long, it’s stunning to see Pluto, literally a dot of light as seen from Earth, becoming a real place right before our eyes,” says Stern. New Horizons is set to pass over Pluto in mid July before continuing on to the outer fringe of our solar system. We can only imagine what it will see next.