As the New Horizons spacecraft preps for its inspection of Pluto on July 14th, NASA provided a status update with some interesting info. First, new color images show a series of spots along the dwarf planet's equator. The evenly-spaced spots are about 300 miles (480 kilometers) in diameter, or about the size of the state of Missouri. Due to the spacing and size, scientists are unable to determine their origin for the time being, but that could change as New Horizons moves in for a closer look. Another thing researchers will be looking for as the spacecraft makes its approach? Clouds. Should Pluto have them, they can be used to track the speed and direction of the planet's winds.
Finally, researchers using telescopes on the ground and NASA's SOFIA airborne observatory confirmed that Pluto's atmosphere didn't freeze. For years, it was believed that the planet's atmosphere would freeze onto the surface and disappear before it could be closely examined. Using the Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) instrument, New Horizons is already gathering data on the environment around the planet. The tech is designed to relay data to scientists on the ground info about Pluto's escaping atmosphere by detecting ions. With those details, it can also be determined how quickly the atmosphere is escaping. The spacecraft is less than 9.5 million miles (15 million kilometers) from the Pluto system and its working just fine, so in less than two weeks, we should have some pictures look more like the artist rendering above.