On July 14, New Horizons, a nuclear powered spacecraft about the size of a baby grand piano, became the first spaceship to pass by Pluto. It was assumed Pluto would have an atmosphere of some kind, but it wouldn’t reach so high above the planetoid’s surface. “It reminds us that exploration brings us more than just incredible discoveries – it brings incredible beauty”, said Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). “The haze goes 100 miles above the surface – that’s five times our prediction”. “The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which were also discovered at Pluto by New Horizons“. When those hydrocarbon gases fall toward the surface and condense, they form the haze.
Scientists also believe that the sunlight then converts the haze into the dark hydrocarbons that give Pluto it’s reddish colour.
“It really is a mystery,” Mr Summers added.
“That tells you something is happening”, Summers said. “And that’s telling us something”.
One of these features, Tombaugh Regio, resembles a massive heart.
The ice isn’t water ice, however. Even at Pluto’s surface temperatures of about 380 degrees below zero, the elements prevalent in the ice are relatively soft and malleable, said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the mission’s geology team. Based on more detailed images of this heart region, mission scientists now think that nitrogen snow may be moving from the western to eastern regions of the landscape.
But if what mission scientists already have in hand is any indication of what the remaining 95% is like, it will be, as team member Bonnie Buratti says, “like opening up a birthday present every day from now until the end of the next year”.
In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum, swirling ices appear to flow much like glaciers on Earth.
The image above isn’t a teaser for a Ring reboot (though one is reportedly on the way). The movement is caused by recent geological activities on the planet, which surprised the scientists.
The Sputnik Planum region of Tombaugh Regio on Pluto, showing what is believed to be nitrogen ice flowing like glaciers do on Earth.
The hazy skies were visible in a striking silhouette captured by New Horizons looking back at the night side of Pluto after the flyby.
Shortly after the New Horizons probe successfully completed its close encounter of the Pluto system, Stern noted that there would be a “16-month data waterfall”, as the spacecraft slowly sends the information it collected during the flyby back to Earth.