Spaceflight Insider

Bizarre, ‘floating’ terrain discovered on Pluto

Image of Sputnik Planum region of Pluto as viewed by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft photo credit NASA JPL posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Pluto’s terrain is proving to be more and more bizarre. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

When it gets as cold as it does in the outer Solar System… things get strange. This was demonstrated in recent imagery provided by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft currently on its way to its secondary target, 2014 MU69. Hills of water ice appear to be ‘floating’ on glaciers made of frozen nitrogen in pictures beamed back by the spacecraft.

Located in Pluto’s uplands, these hills measure anywhere between a mile to several miles across and are, in some cases, grouped together in clusters.

Owing to the difference in density between water and nitrogen, the ‘hills’ move around in a manner similar to that of icebergs floating on the ocean here on Earth.

These hills are located in what has been unofficially dubbed Sputnik Planum, which is, itself, within the ‘heart’ formation on Pluto. According to NASA, these hills are smaller versions of similar features that have been observed on the western border of Sputnik Planum.

Images of these intriguing features were beamed back from the spacecraft’s July 14, 2015, flyby. At its closest approach, the probe was some 7,800 miles (12,500 km) above the frozen world.

New Horizons’ voyage has been a long one. It was launched in 2006 atop an Atlas V 551 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. From there, it carried out a wheeling journey through the Solar System, passing by Earth’s moon, the planet Jupiter, and then Pluto. After the successful completion of this primary objective, it was directed to a new destination – 2014 MU69.

Video courtesy of Geobeat News


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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