Images sent back from the New Horizons space probe offer new insights on Pluto's hazy atmosphere.
The New Horizons space probe continues to grace scientists with mountains of new information about the lonely dwarf planet, Pluto. According to a report from Space.com, the latest image from New Horizons offers a stunning view of jagged peaks, ice plains and possibly a massive cloud moving through Pluto’s atmosphere.
Scientists described the area depicted in the image as Pluto’s “twilight zone.” It was snapped, like the majority of these amazing Pluto images, as New Horizons zoomed past Pluto last July. The photo was taken when the planet sat between the sun and the probe, offering a unique glimpse into the gases looming over the dwarf planet’s surface.
The sunlight beaming through the atmosphere lights up a number of notable landmarks on the surface, including the Norgay Montes mountain range and the sprawling ice plain called Sputnik Planum.
According to a statement from NASA, however, the star of the image is the cloud visible. Researchers say that it “may be a discrete, low-lying cloud in Pluto’s atmosphere; if so it would be the only one yet identified in New Horizons imagery.
“Atmospheric models suggest that methane clouds can occasionally form in Pluto’s atmosphere,” the statement said. Unlike Earth, the dwarf planet’s atmosphere is made of a mixture of nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. The majority of these gases vaporize from the ice sheets coating the surface, which are also visible in the photo.
The photo was taken 19 minutes after New Horizons’ closest approach with the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera at a distance of roughly 13,400 miles. It has a resolution of 1,400 feet per pixel, and offers unique insights into the forces at work on Pluto’s surface and in its atmosphere.
A NASA press release describing the details of the images can be found here.