On September 14 2019, the Facebook page “Science Porn” shared the following image, claiming it was the “newest” and “clearest” photograph of Pluto:
On Twitter, a space-and-science focused account shared the photograph with a similar caption on the same day. On Reddit, the same image was shared to r/Astronomy and r/SpacePorn by a karma-farming user at around the same time with a similar caption:
As a top comment on the r/Astronomy thread noted the images were nowhere near new as of 2019, as they were first released in September 2015:
Beautiful, but not “new” at all.
All the detailled images we have are from the New Horizons flyby, on July 14, 2015. Telescopes cannot get anything better than a pixelated blur.
This particular enhanced color composite was released in September 2015.
Small text on the photograph indicated that it had originated with NASA, which maintains an archive of Pluto images. A July 2018 article featured a slightly less colorful version of what appeared to be the same image, “True Colors of Pluto.” It explained of the original image:
This is the most accurate natural color images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015.
These natural-color images result from refined calibration of data gathered by New Horizons’ color Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The processing creates images that would approximate the colors that the human eye would perceive, bringing them closer to “true color” than the images released near the encounter.
This image was taken as New Horizons zipped toward Pluto and its moons on July 14, 2015, from a range of 22,025 miles (35,445) kilometers. This single color MVIC scan includes no data from other New Horizons imagers or instruments added. The striking features on Pluto are clearly visible, including the bright expanse of Pluto’s icy, nitrogen-and-methane rich “heart,” Sputnik Planitia.
A July 2015 entry in the same gallery bearing the headling “Pluto Dazzles in False Color” reported that “New Horizons scientists use enhanced color images to detect differences in the composition and texture of Pluto’s surface.” Laurie Cantillo, NASA Planetary Science Public Affairs, was quoted on the page about the enhanced images:
This high-resolution, false color image of Pluto is my favorite. The New Horizons flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 capped humanity’s initial reconnaissance of every major body in the Solar System. To think that all of this happened within our lifetime! It’s a reminder of how privileged we are to be alive and working at NASA during this historic era of space exploration.
A September 2015 post included additional renderings of Pluto, describing how NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft captured Pluto in images later enhanced to highlight the variances of Pluto’s surface:
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). The viewer is encouraged to zoom in on the full resolution image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features.
The image was originally captured by the craft on July 14 2015:
This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left), was taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed through the Pluto system on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the spacecraft’s Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).
The coloration seen in the “newest” and “clearest” image of Pluto did not match most of the images in NASA’s Pluto gallery. But the enhancement still wasn’t new in September 2019; it appeared on Twitter in May 2018:
Although a number of space and astronomy-related pages and subreddits shared the purported “newest” and “clearest” photograph of Pluto in September 2019, those descriptions suggested that the imagery was new as of 2019. However, we traced all the images back to NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft and images of Pluto it captured in July 2015. The enhancement seen in the posts was of unknown origin, but also was not new, appearing on Twitter more than a year before. NASA shared even more colorful renderings and enhancements of Pluto, including a “psychedelic Pluto” post from November 2015.