New images of Pluto revealed

- The spacecraft that is now more than 3 billion miles from Earth and 32 million miles from Pluto continues to dazzle us.  New images keep pouring in from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft from its close flyby of Pluto and its moons.

The yearlong download of new images from the spacecraft started over the Labor Day weekend.  These new images show never before seen diversity in the planet with possible dunes, nitrogen ice flows that ooze out of mountains, and networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over the surface. 

“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“Seeing dunes on Pluto -- if that is what they are -- would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”

Images returned in the past days have also revealed that Pluto’s global atmospheric haze has many more layers than scientists realized, and that the haze actually creates a twilight effect that softly illuminates night side terrain near sunset, making them visible to the cameras aboard New Horizons.

“This bonus twilight view is a wonderful gift that Pluto has handed to us,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from the Southwest Research Institute. “Now we can study geology in terrain that we never expected to see.”

This view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Region toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This 220-mile wide view of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles in size.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, processed in two different ways, shows how Pluto’s bright, high-altitude atmospheric haze produces a twilight that softly illuminates the surface before sunrise and after sunset, allowing the sensitive cameras on New Horizons to see details in nighttime regions that would otherwise be invisible. The right-hand version of the image has been greatly brightened to bring out faint details of rugged haze-lit topography beyond Pluto’s terminator, which is the line separating day and night.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Two different versions of an image of Pluto’s haze layers, taken by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto's dark side nearly 16 hours after close approach, from a distance of 480,000 miles, at a phase angle of 166 degrees. Pluto's north is at the top, and the sun illuminates Pluto from the upper right. These images are much higher quality than the digitally compressed images of Pluto’s haze downlinked and released shortly after the July 14 encounter, and allow many new details to be seen. The left version has had only minor processing, while the right version has been specially processed to reveal a large number of discrete haze layers in the atmosphere. In the left version, faint surface details on the narrow sunlit crescent are seen through the haze in the upper right of Pluto’s disk, and subtle parallel streaks in the haze may be crepuscular rays- shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountain ranges on Pluto, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the sun sets behind mountains on Earth.

Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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