In what appears to be the first major debut by NASA on Instagram, the space agency released a breathtaking image of Pluto one hour before releasing the image on its own website. The amazing picture is the closest image of the dwarf planet yet to be released. Releasing the sneak peek of the image on Facebook-owned Instagram is a huge win for the company as users who wish to share the image post links or embed the Instagram version rather than the plain image file. This allows Instagram to feature its recently-launched update to its “search and discover” features with a specific list of space-related Instagram accounts, including NASA’s account, under the application’s Explore tab.
The stunning image was taken at about 4:00 P.M. yesterday, according to NASA, from 476,000 miles away. The high-resolution image was released after the highly anticipated flyby, and in the image, the "heart" of Pluto is visible in much greater detail than before. Craters that were impossible to make out in previous images are visible, as well as an amazing view of the dwarf planet's dark equatorial belt.
NASA made the decision to release the image of Pluto on Instagram in an effort to engage new (younger) audiences. It did so rather than releasing the image of such a historic occasion on its own public website as it has it has traditionally done in the past.
Interestingly, NASA’s Instagram account is incredibly popular, where its recent photos have over one hundred thousand likes per image. The account has over 3.5 million followers, which is more than many celebrities and popular groups.
While NASA released the Pluto image on Instagram one hour before officially releasing it on its public website along with the science that surrounds the image, questions arise regarding favoritism. Specifically, the issue of whether a public agency should give preference to a specific private media outlet is raised. While it is one thing to release new images on an agency’s public site and simultaneously on social media, it is another thing to pick one private site and give it an exclusive debut.
While the image released to Instagram is the closest image of Pluto yet, it will not be the closest for the New Horizons spacecraft, which has travelled greater than nine years and over three billion miles. Those images will be released by NASA on Wednesday, July 15th.