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Latest Pluto images show bizarre landscapes, vivid colors

'Snakeskin' Terrain on Pluto

In this extended color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s day-night terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red, and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). (Click to enlarge.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Every image of Pluto sent back by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has both thrilled and perplexed scientists. The latest images – returned on September 19 and 20 – are eliciting the same responses in their high-resolution depictions of the dwarf planet’s unusual landscapes and vivid colors.

The highest ever resolution images taken during the spacecraft’s July 14 flyby show the various terrains on Pluto’s surface with an unprecedented level of geologic, topographic, and compositional detail.

The image above, taken close to the terminator, which separates the planet’s day and night sides, shows a “snakeskin” like terrain within an expansive, flowing region of strangely aligned ridges.

One area near the terminator, informally titled Tartarus Dorsa, is covered with rounded and extraordinarily textured mountains interspersed with patterns of bluish gray ridges and peculiar red material.

Members of the mission team are baffled by the alien landscape, to the point that William McKinnon of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team described it as looking “more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology.”

Cylindrical projection map of Pluto

This cylindrical projection map of Pluto, in enhanced, extended color, is the most detailed color map of Pluto ever made. It uses recently returned color imagery from the New Horizons Ralph camera, which is draped onto a base map of images from the NASA’s spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). The map can be zoomed in to reveal exquisite detail with high scientific value. Color variations have been enhanced to bring out subtle differences. Colors used in this map are the blue, red, and near-infrared filter channels of the Ralph instrument. (Click to enlarge/zoom.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

“This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation, driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight,” he speculated.

Among the data returned is an “extended color view” of Pluto (above) taken by the Ralph instrument’s Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) that reveals an unexpected diversity of colors on the planet’s surface.

The image enhances Pluto’s actual colors in a region about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across with the purpose of drawing out subtle details of the landscape that would otherwise not be visible.

The rich color variations of Pluto are further enhanced in the high-resolution image below, which combines blue, red, and infrared images that were taken by MVIC to reveal colors and surface details on areas as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 km) across.

The Rich Color Variations of Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red, and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 km). (Click to enlarge/zoom.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

“We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” GGI deputy lead John Spencer noted. “Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”

Also among this latest data are high-resolution images of Sputnik Planum and surrounding areas taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) taken just before New Horizons’ closest approach on July 14, 2015.

From Pluto's Mountains to Its Plains

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 km) across. (Click to enlarge/zoom.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JHL-APL/SwRI

The LORRI images depict areas as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across. Viewers can zoom in on these images to see the stunningly detailed terrains.

Pluto's Ice Mountains and Plains

A section of Sputnik Planum. (Click to enlarge.) Image Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

Though smooth and bright, Sputnik Planum is spotted with crenelated terrain, heavily pitted regions, and low ridges that some scientists believe could be dunes of bright, volatile ice.

One thought is the scalloped terrain is the result of ices on Sputnik Planum being especially predisposed to sublimation.

The close-up image on the right is of a 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of Sputnik Planum taken from the larger mosaic and enhanced shows two separate ice mountains surrounded by the region’s smooth, textured surface.

Compositional data used to create a map (below) depicting methane on Pluto’s surface shows the compound to be unevenly distributed.

The dark equatorial region known as Cthulhu Regio contains almost no methane at all except for a small amount on some ridges and crater rims.

In contrast, Sputnik Planum has an abundance of methane.

Beyond Sputnik Planum, methane is highly concentrated in bright plains and crater rims but absent in craters’ centers and darker regions.

Scientists are uncertain as to whether methane ice is more likely to condense in bright regions or whether the condensation itself creates the brightness.

New Horizons surface composition team lead Will Grundy compared the question to the “chicken or egg” dilemma regarding which came first.

“We’re unsure why this is so, but the cool thing is that New Horizons has the ability to make exquisite compositional maps across the surface of Pluto, and that’ll be crucial to resolving how enigmatic Pluto works.”

Principal Investigator Alan Stern said the high-resolution images and maps mark a new phase in Pluto studies.

“I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day,” he said.

Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 and died in 1997 at the age of 90. His daughter, Annette, and son, Alden, were present at JHU-APL for the New Horizons flyby.

Mapping Pluto's Methane Ice

The Ralph/LEISA infrared spectrometer on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft mapped compositions across Pluto’s surface as it flew past the planet on July 14, 2015. On the left, a map of methane ice abundance shows striking regional differences, with stronger methane absorption indicated by the brighter purple colors, and lower abundances shown in black. Data have only been received so far for the left half of Pluto’s disk. At right, the methane map is merged with higher-resolution images from the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). (Click to enlarge.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JHU-APL/SwRI

 

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Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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