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Stunning images of Pluto backlit thrill scientists, viewers

New Horizons' near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon.

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the Sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 m) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, the rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 km) wide. (Click to enlarge.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA / JHU-APL / SwRI

New panoramic images of Pluto backlit by the Sun, taken only 15 minutes after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft’s closest approach on July 14, are thrilling scientists and viewers with stunning details of the dwarf planet’s diverse terrains, some of which are surprisingly Earth-like.

Released by the New Horizons team on Thursday, September 17, the images were taken by the spacecraft’s wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) as the spacecraft pivoted to photograph a 780-mile (1,250 km) wide region of the planet’s icy surface.

The photos, taken when New Horizons was 11,000 miles (18,000 km) from Pluto, show a dramatic close-up of its varied terrains, including icy mountains rising close to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, flat plains, and rough terrain that appears to be cut by glaciers.

A panorama featuring the smooth, icy Sputnik Planum flanked by two mountain regions, one informally named Norgay Montes, and the other Hillary Montes, depicts a region 230 miles (380 kilometers) across.

New Horizons captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon.

Closer Look: Majestic Mountains and Frozen Plains: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the Sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across. (Click to enlarge.) Image & Caption Credit: NASA / JHU-APL / SwRI

Also visible in surprising detail is Pluto’s haze, which is composed of more than a dozen thin layers, reaching 60 miles above the surface.

One photo illustrates a small section of Pluto just 115 miles (185 kilometers) across where shadows of hills and mountains seen through fog look eerily Earth-like.

“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers, and plains.”

Will Grundy of the Lowell Observatory, head of the New Horizons Composition team, noted the low-lying hazes suggest Pluto has constantly changing weather, much the way Earth does.

Soft, exotic ices, especially nitrogen ice, cover bright areas of Sputnik Planum, located in the heart-shaped region known as Tombaugh Regio. These ices may have evaporated from Sputnik Planum and subsequently fallen back to the surface east of the plain as snow.

Pluto’s Sputnik Planum

Pluto’s ‘Heart’: Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb-shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below. Image & Caption Credit: NASA / JHU-APL / SwRI

Glaciers seen flowing back into Sputnik Planum in the panorama taken by Ralph appear remarkably similar to frozen streams near ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland.

Scientists were especially surprised to find evidence of a hydrological cycle on the planet similar to that on Earth. While Earth’s cycle involves water ice, Pluto’s is of soft and exotic ices, primarily nitrogen.

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

Alan Howard of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics, and Imaging team, said no mission scientists expected to find a nitrogen-based hydrological cycle in the outer regions of the 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,” Howard said.

Intricate Valley Glaciers on Pluto

The image on the left shows ice (probably frozen nitrogen) that appears to have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 390-mile (630-kilometer) wide image is draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the informally named Sputnik Planum through the 2- to 5-mile (3- to 8- kilometer) wide valleys indicated by the red arrows. The flow front of the ice moving into Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain. The image on the right covers the same region as the left image but is re-projected from the oblique, backlit view shown in the new crescent image of Pluto. The backlighting highlights the intricate flow lines on the glaciers. The flow front of the ice moving into the informally named Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain. This image is 390 miles (630 kilometers) across. (Click to enlarge.) Images & 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.

Reader Comments

Nice job, Laurel! Pluto continues to outamaze itself!

Fantastic….exceeds the wildest expectations. Thanks for sharing

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