In July, New Horizons surprised the world with images showing Pluto’s varied terrain. Last night, NASA released several new images of the distant world. And they will blow you away.
“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that’s what is actually there.”
While everyone was enjoying their Labor Day weekend, New Horizons began its year-long data transmission back to Earth. Scientists are just now starting to the massive chunk of data from New Horizons close encounter with the Pluto system. 95% of the data from July’s flyby is now making the several billion-mile journey to the Deep Space Network (DSN) on Earth.
The newest images show even more of Pluto’s surface at a resolution up to 400 meters per pixel. The image above has it all. Craters, smooth plains, mountains, you name it. New, tantalizing features could be dunes, nitrogen ice flows oozing from mountainous regions and even vast networks of valleys that may be carved by flowing material over Pluto’s surface.
The New Horizons mission is revealing Pluto to be like no one ever imagined.
“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team. “The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”
Check out another view of Sputnik Planum.
This image covers an area about 1,000 miles wide. The smallest features seen in this image are about 0.5 miles in size. Check out the dark, wispy areas on the fringes of the plain. They look like little rivers and streams.
Here’s a closeup of the plain’s edge.
You can see craters on the left side that give way to a jumbled, mountain-like terrain as you approach the smoother plain on the right side.
The next image shows the incredible contrast that exists on Pluto’s surface.
The top edge of the image is smooth and indicates a relatively young surface. Contrast that with the dark, heavily cratered areas at the bottom. The bottom portion of the image shows an ancient terrain untouched by whatever surface activity creates the smooth features at the top.
Charon Joins the Party
It wasn’t all pictures of Pluto. We also got a better look at Charon. It’s the same image we saw on July 15, but in much better quality. While not as varied as Pluto, Charon has its own surprises. Tectonic fracturing, plains, mountains, and canyons are sprinkled on Charon’s surface.
And how can you miss that notch at the top right of the image? It’s a massive canyon estimated to be between 4 and 6 miles deep.
I’ll leave you with one more image.
You see how some of the features are lit up to the right of the terminator line? Pluto’s bright, high-altitude atmospheric haze creates a twilight that lights up the surface before sunrise and sunset. New Horizons’ cameras are sensitive enough to see details in the nighttime regions just past the terminator line.