NASA scientists were stunned when they received the latest photos of Pluto from New Horizons, revealing a wildly complex landscape with a myriad of vibrant colors.
We have reported countless times on New Horizons’ historic mission to explore the outer reaches of our solar system, flying past the dwarf planet Pluto and snapping some of the first high-definition images ever seen. And each time a new photo arrives from the space probe, NASA scientists are both shocked and overjoyed by the details revealed about the mysterious planet.
The latest is no exception. According to a report from Phys.org, NASA released several photos of the Pluto-Charon system captured as New Horizons flew by in July. The images show the details of Pluto’s icy surface, which some say resembles a snakeskin pattern. From another perspective, the plains appear to have the texture of the rind of a cantaloupe.
The newest high-res images reveal a wide collection of new details about the topography and the chemical makeup of Pluto’s surface, and scientists can hardly believe their eyes. The wide, rippling landscape and bizarrely aligned ridges are unlike anything we have ever seen here on Earth, or anywhere else in the solar system for that matter.
The image also reveals a beautiful spectrum of colors on Pluto, which we previously believed was more or less gray and dull. The “extended color” view, taken with New Horizons’ wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera, or MVIC, this July 14, reveals that Pluto is actually quite interesting to look at up close. The photos arrived at New Horizons headquarters on September 19th.
According to John Spencer, the GGI deputy lead from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO, the MVIC’s infrared channel allowed the team to get a better view of Pluto’s spectrum. The colors on the surface have been enhanced in the photo to reveal the subtle differences in color, appearing as a palate of pale blues, oranges, yellows, and searing reds. On Pluto, many of the different landforms have their own distinct colors, which hold the secrets to the past of Pluto and ultimately of the solar system.
Another high-res image reveals the details of Pluto’s geology on a larger scale. The photo was snapped by the space probe’s narrow-angled Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, LORRI, and arrived on Earth on September 20. It reveals features that appear to be dunes, a shoreline of a glacial lake that has shrunk considerably over tie, and jagged, fractured ice mountains with cliffs dropping down for miles.
It offers a look at the bright surface of the formation known as Sputnik Planum, which shows dense pits, ridges, and scalloped surface arranged in a beautiful pattern across the span of the photo. Ice dunes of subliming frozen water may explain the bizarre patterns, but NASA scientists are still dumbfounded by the scale and variety of the geography captured by New Horizons this summer.
In addition to revealing the secrets of Pluto’s geography, the information gathered by New Horizons also offers new insights into the composition of Pluto. A map of methane ice spanning the surface of Pluto reveals a stark contrast between different regions. Sputnik Planum, for example, has abundant stores of methane, except for on the mountains along its west flank. The region informally known as Cthulhu Regio shows absolutely no methane, apart from a few crater rims and ridges.
The distribution of methane across the surface of Pluto reveals even more complexity about the dwarf planet’s past, as the concentration is much higher on the wide plains and rims of craters than it is in the bottom of the craters or in darker areas. Scientists aren’t sure, but they think it may have something to do with the fact that methane is more likely to condense in certain regions.
It presents a interesting puzzle for the researchers, who have been pouring over the new compositional maps of the dwarf planet’s surface since they arrived from New Horizons.
William McKinnon, a planetary geologist working with the New Horizons team, confirms that their research on the formation and evolution of the icy worlds at the far edge of the solar system has taken a turn for the bizarre since seeing the images captured by the space probe this summer. But this is nothing new for astronomers that study the solar system. For half a century, scientists have been seeking to improve their understanding of the other planets and moons that orbit our sun.
New Horizons culminates nearly 50 years of exploration of the solar system. In 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 2 probe to fly by the planet Venus, our closest neighbor in the solar system. Their technology has improved significantly since then, and the new photos from 2015 are a shocking confirmation of how far the research has come. Before, Pluto was little more than a grey speck with details that evaded astronomers. Now, researchers can get up close and personal with Pluto as if they were hovering above the surface themselves.
The new photos reveal just how complex the bodies of the solar system actually are. They show massive volcanoes, and seas as big as the Great Lakes but full of hydrocarbons on planets and moons that resemble Earth in a surprising way.
Photos taken with the latest in space cameras also reveal that many planets and moons throughout the solar system are still remarkably geologically active. Some have been shown to hold massive tides that heat the interiors of otherwise frozen ice moons to create massive gushers and vast underground oceans of liquid water.
Recent research of the solar system also reveals many locations throughout the solar system where life may have been able to stand a chance against the elements of the universe. Based on our understanding of how resilient life on Earth can be, it is not unreasonable to believe it may have existed at one point in several locations.
The head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, Jim Green, has little doubt that we are currently in the midst of a revolution in understanding the wonders of the solar system. In addition to all of the revolutions in research over the past 50 years, we are beginning to learn that the solar system can actually be pretty weird.