We’ve been mesmerized by Pluto’s plains in the middle of the icy, dwarf planet. But what does the rest of Pluto look like? New Horizons is changing things up this week by giving us an in-depth look at Pluto’s north pole.
The enhanced color image (scientists do this to help tease surface details they would otherwise not see) show large canyons sprinkled throughout the polar region.
This area is informally named Lowell Regio, after Percival Lowell. He founded the Lowell Observatory and began the search that ultimately led to the discovery of Pluto.
Here’s another image coloring the biggest canyons.
The widest canyon is seen in yellow. It’s about 45 miles (75 kilometers) wide and stretches just to the left of Pluto’s north pole. Several canyons (seen in green) flank the widest canyon. These canyon walls appear to have seen better days. Based on their apparent condition, the New Horizons team believe they are much older than the canyon systems seen further to the south. The north pole canyons also hint at a time in Pluto’s past that had tectonics.
The blue line represents a shallow valley winding its way through the much larger canyon’s floor.
See the red areas? Those aren’t craters. Scientists believe the pits were caused by subsurface ice melt or sublimation. Either of these could have caused the ground to collapse.
But, the biggest surprise in this image is the color. An enhanced color view of all of Pluto shows deep reds and blues dominating much of the surface.
Just as the deep reds stand out, so do the yellows at the north pole. What’s going on here? Two things. First, New Horizons tells us Pluto’s polar regions is abundant in methane ice with very little nitrogen ice. New Horizons composition team lead Will Grundy explains the second. “One possibility is that the yellow terrains may correspond to older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar radiation than the bluer terrain.”
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was 21,000 miles away from Pluto when it snapped this image. For a sense of scale, the lower edge of the image measures 750 miles across.
What’s New Horizons up to these days
It’s still sending data back to Earth. According to New Horizons’ official website, “encounter data playback” will wrap up sometime between October and December.
As for where the spacecraft is at? New Horizons is 1.81 AU past Pluto (1 AU = 93 million miles). The spacecraft is 35.40 AU from Earth. Round-trip light time at this distance? Nearly 10 hours.
The New Horizons team believe they have one more trick up their sleeves. A flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. But before this can happen, scientists need approval from NASA.
Later this year, the New Horizons team will deliver a mission extension proposal. This proposal will be reviewed by an independent team of experts. If approved, the mission to MU69 begins in 2017 with an expected flyby date on January 1, 2019.