Just when you thought the Pluto images couldn’t get any cooler, NASA releases another set. One of the newest images came just hours after New Horizons’ closest approach to the dwarf planet.
The spacecraft turned around, zoomed in with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and snapped the image above.
Sunlight streams through Pluto’s atmosphere revealing a white haze that extends 80 miles above the planet’s surface. Initial analysis shows two primary layers of haze. One about 50 miles above the surface and another at 30 miles.
“My jaw was on the ground when I saw this first image of an alien atmosphere in the Kuiper Belt,” said Alan Stern, principal investigation for New Horizons.
Modelling data suggests the white haze forms as ultraviolet sunlight breaks up methane gas particles. This process triggers a build up of “more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene.” It’s these more complex hydrocarbon compounds that are responsible for giving Pluto’s surface its reddish tint according to Michael Summers, a New Horizons co-investigator.
The image below highlights this reddish tint. Scientists took four images from New Horizons’ LORRI and combined it with color data from the Ralph instrument to produce this true color image.
Ice flows on Pluto
The white haze is cool and all, but it has nothing on the ice flows spotted on Pluto’s icy plain – Sputnik Planum. The image below shows nitrogen ice flows that look awfully similar to glaciers on Earth. And, the ice flows could still be flowing today.
“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” said mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. “I’m really smiling.”
The temperatures on Pluto are a frigid -369 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take a few degrees. Water is pretty much concrete, but nitrogen is a different story. The melting point for nitrogen is -346 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bill McKinnon, a New Horizons co-investigator, describes the nitrogen and methane ice on Pluto as “geologically soft and malleable, even at Pluto conditions.”
Two more sets of mountains were revealed in a new image.
The New Horizons team named the pair after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who became the first climbers to summit Mount Everest in 1953.
“For many years, we referred to Pluto as the Everest of planetary exploration,” Stern. “It’s fitting that the two climbers who first summited Earth’s highest mountain, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, now have their names on this new Everest.”
Check out the crater in the same image. See how it’s been filled in by ice. The amount of surface activity that appears to be happening on Pluto’s surface is staggering.
It’s safe to say New Horizons has surpassed everyone’s expectations. I never thought Pluto would have such a varied landscape with clear signs of geological activity.
You know NASA and the New Horizons team is loving the extra attention. All the press and social media generated by New Horizons’ discoveries will make it much easier for the New Horizons team to push for a mission extension to a Kuiper Belt object.
Image credits: NASA