New Horizons’ downlink back to Earth continues and the latest image is the best one yet. The backlit panorama below has left scientists stunned. Take a look.

backlit Pluto

There is so much going on in this image. What you’re seeing is another view of the smooth, frozen plain of Sputnik Planum (right) with mountains rising up to 11,000 feet hugging its left side. To the right of Sputnik Planum is a rugged terrain created by possible glaciers. The feature that immediately catches everyone’s eye is the haze atmosphere hanging above Pluto’s surface. More than a dozen layers can be seen in the image.

Here’s a zoomed in image of Sputnik Planum and the mountains.

Sputnik Planum Pluto mountains

The newest image was taken 15 minutes after New Horizons closest approach with Pluto on July 14, 2015 as it looked back toward the sun. We are looking at an area that stretches 780 miles across.

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern called the image a “scientific bonanza” and it “really makes you feel you are there.”

The nitrogen atmosphere is amazing, but let’s zoom in a little bit.

Pluto fog

Check out the haze right at the surface near the day/night line! William Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team, tells us what this means. “In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth.”

Other images also hint at an Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on the distant planet. But, it’s nitrogen and other ices rather than water ice.

Here’s how the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps works on Earth. Water evaporates from the oceans, falls as snow and returns to the seas through glacial flow. Pluto’s cycle can be directly compared to Earth, but it’s nitrogen-based.

Pluto’s Sky May Have Clouds and What It Means

“Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” said Stern, “and no one predicted it.”

The image below shows some of this process in action. Red arrows mark 2 to 5 mile wide valleys where ice (probably nitrogen) drains from Pluto’s mountains (right) and accumulates (blue arrows) onto Sputnik Planum (left).

Pluto ice flow onto plains


What an image! I admit, I was excited about New Horizons reaching Pluto – but I never thought we would see these kind of images. Who would have figured Pluto would be this active? Ice flows, atmosphere, fog, smooth plains and rugged mountains? You couldn’t ask for a better outcome.

Plus, this is still just a small taste of the data New Horizons continues to send back. It won’t be done transmitting all the data from its closest approach with Pluto for another year. Now we just need NASA to approve the Kuiper Belt Object mission. If Pluto is this interesting, imagine what could be waiting even further out?

What’s your favorite part of the newest image? That fog/haze is incredible.

Image credits: NASA

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