The newest snapshots took by NASA’S New Horizons spaceship reveal an incredibly diverse landscape, unlike any scientist had imagined when the ship swept past dwarf planet Pluto back in July.
In one of the pictures, giant craters are bordering freshly formed icy plains. Scientists believe that the dark ridges that are also visible could be dunes. William McKinnon, outerspace geologist at Washington University, St. Louis, confirmed that those ridges are indeed dunes. But the scientist wonders how these ridges formed, considering Pluto’s thin atmosphere. McKinnon believes that Pluto may had a thicker atmosphere million years ago, or maybe there is a process going on that we cannot quite understand yet. McKinnon is convinced that the cluttered mountain ranges are giant blocks of ice situated on frozen nitrogen platforms.
After New Horizons spent several weeks collecting data of the planet, scientists received the first pictures of Pluto last weekend. On Thursday, NASA have released a few to the public.
Alan Stern, main scientist of New Horizons said that “if an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top, but that’s what is actually there.” Besides the planet’s ridiculous geological features, the images show that Pluto’s atmospheric haze has multiple layers. Even better, because this haze creates a dusk effect that allowed New Horizons to photograph the night side of the planet, which otherwise could have not be seen. Scientists were fascinated, as they did not foresee that.
Next Monday two months will have passed since New Horizons’ first close encounter with the dwarf planet on July 14. The spaceship’s journey started in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and after travelling over 3 billion miles and for nearly ten years, New Horizons swept past Pluto at 44 million miles distance.
The spacecraft had collected so much data during its flyby around Pluto that it will take almost one year to retrieve it on Earth. The machine was controlled from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland, where it was also designed and put together.
NASA is waiting formal approval to send New Horizons to a new target – a much smaller celestial body that is orbiting at around 1 billion miles away from Pluto. The potential target, just like the dwarf planet, is laying in the Kuiper Belt, which is described as a frosty twilight zone situated on the edge of our solar system. If the mission will be approved, New Horizons would reach the space object in 2019.
Photo Credits jhuapl.edu