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Pluto’s Endless Cosmic Dance

The two pixelated blobs above are dwarf planet Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Comprising images taken by the New Horizons spacecraft between July 19 and 24, this animation is the closest look yet at this intriguing system — shot from a mere 425-ish million kilometers away.

Because Charon is so large relative to Pluto, many astronomers consider the pair to be a binary (dwarf) planet. At roughly 1/12th of Pluto’s mass, Charon is massive enough to shift the system’s center of gravity to a point outside Pluto; in other words, both bodies are orbiting a spot in the space between them, and it’s because of this that Pluto appears to wobble as Charon traces its endless cosmic circles.

Living billions of kilometers from the sun, Pluto is a enigmatic icy world. But not for long. Hurtling toward that faraway, frozen land at thousands of kilometers per hour is NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, set to arrive in the Plutonian system in mid-2015. Then, eager Earthlings will finally get a great look at the demoted planet and its many moons (some of which have only recently been discovered).

That can hardly happen soon enough. So far, the most detailed shots we have of Pluto’s surface are some grainy Hubble images showing a varied, vaguely amber-colored world.

What does Pluto’s surface really look like? Will it be smooth? Riven with canyons? Home to numerous impact craters and steep mountains? What will Charon, its largest moon look like? And what about those smaller moons — Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx? (Are there more moons?) What’s going on beneath Pluto’s surface?

The answers to these and many more questions are nearly within reach and I, for one, am absurdly excited to see what New Horizons will find out.