Must-see photos of Pluto resemble an icy Earth

Must-see photos of Pluto resemble an icy Earth

NASA’s New Horizons has sent back some some wonderful photos already since it raced past distant Pluto on 14 July, revealing the dwarf planet in detail for the first time ever. But the latest spectacular views will take your breath away. 

Pluto from New Horizons
This spectacular view back towards Pluto was taken just 15 minutes after New Horizons’ closest approach on 14 July and includes mountains up to 3,500 metres high. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

They were taken looking back just 15 minutes after the flyby, at an angle that leaves you feeling you really are gazing out across an alien landscape.

Backlit by the Sun, the varied features include Pluto’s mountains, rivers of frozen nitrogen and hazy layered atmosphere. It strangely resembles a view you might get from a plane flying over the Arctic.

The new images come at the end of a month-long drought during New Horizons focused on returning data and telemetry, as I pointed out on my blog for Sen (subscribers only). Since 5 September, the probe, travelling at 50,000 km per hour, has been giving us new close-ups of the former planet and its system of moons, in particular the largest, Charon.

Pluto appeared as a crescent to the robotic probe when it took the pictures shown here during an encounter that marked the climax of its nine-year, five billion km journey from Earth. On the approach it had captured a remarkable heart-shaped feature dominating much of the distant world.

Since then, as we revealed in late July, many of the features have been given names – unofficial at this stage – by the New Horizons team, from suggestions made in a public contest. They include famous explorers and characters from scifi series including Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Pluto’s unexpected resemblance to Earth was remarked upon by New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, at Boulder, Colorado. He commented: “This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself. But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.

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

Wide-angle view of Pluto
A wide-angle of the look back towards Pluto by New Horizons on 14 July. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The views here were taken with the wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) aboard New Horizons on July 14, and radioed back to Earth on 13 September. The scene shows an area of Pluto that is about 1,250 wide. More than a dozen thin layers of haze can be seen in the atmosphere to a height of about 100 km, as well as a bank of fog. These features, along with the streams observed, are similar to those seen with water on Earth, but here they involve exotic ices including nitrogen.

The situation is reminiscent of what was found on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, by NASA’s Cassini probe and its European lander Huygens. There the landscape shows features like on Earth but caused by methane, not water, which forms lakes and rivers, and falls from the sky as rain.

Of the New Horizons findings, Will Grundy, from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. who is leader of the mission’s composition team, said: “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.”

The new panorama also reveals glaciers flowing back into Sputnik Planum from a region blanketed in ices, and resembling frozen streams seen on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

New Horizons scientist Alan Howard, of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, said: “We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system. Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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