New Horizons has shown Pluto to be a diverse world, more so than many scientists had anticipated, with tall mountain ranges, vast glaciers, a blue-colored layered atmosphere, and possible ice volcanoes. One thing, however, which seemed to be relatively lacking, was exposed water ice. Not much had been seen on the surface, not even in the glacial regions, which are composed of other ices instead. But now, new data indicates there actually is more water ice than had originally been thought.
Another beautiful view of Pluto, taken by New Horizons as it passed by the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015. Pluto is backlit by the Sun, showing the hazy blue colour of its thin atmosphere, a view never possible from Earth. Image processing by Roman Tkachenko. It is also now the current header image for the blog. Larger version available here.
Instead of being little more than a frozen and unchanging rocky iceball, Pluto has been revealed to be a complex and dynamic little world, with mountains, valleys, vast icy plains, glaciers and a hazy, layered atmosphere. The New Horizons spacecraft is continuing to send back data, even though it is now long past Pluto since its historic flyby last summer. Seen up close for the first time ever, Pluto is starting to share its secrets, including how it can be a geologically active place despite being so far from the Sun; of particular interest to scientists are the icy, crater-free plains composed of nitrogen ice, which churns and moves very slowly, sort of like the globules in a lava lamp. These plains are like a huge nitrogen ice “sea,” bordered by tall mountains and glaciers.
The New Horizons mission has already sent back phenomenal images and data from Pluto, but it keeps getting better. New images released today are the first in a series of the highest-resolution photos taken of Pluto’s surface during the flyby last July, showing mountains, glaciers, and craters in unprecedented detail.
Pluto is a small, cold world, but it is also turning out to be one of the most fascinating places in our Solar System – as reported this week at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting in National Harbor, Maryland, images and other data have revealed possible ice volcanoes and other surprisingly diverse geology as well as weirdly spinning moons.