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Amazing new collection of high-resolution Pluto images opens a new page in its future research


A new collection of high-resolution images of Pluto, collected by NASA's New Horizon, has revealed the minor planet's surface in amazing, previously unseen topographic and compositional details. The collected data has opened new horizons in the future research of this small planet on the edge of our solar system. 

The New Horizon's research team has been mesmerized by a newly uncovered immense rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges stretching over hundreds of kilometers.

Extended color image of Pluto taken by NASA's New Horizon spacecraft shows rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa. The view combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015. It stretches about 530 km (330 miles across) and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 1.3 km (0.8 miles). Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles. It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight,” said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis.

Cylindrical projection map of Pluto, in enhanced, extended color is the most detailed map of Pluto made so far. It uses recently returned color imagery from the New Horizon's Ralph camera and drapes it on top of a base map of images from the NASA's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI). Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.

The new “extended color” view of Pluto was taken by New Horizons’ wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015 and downlinked to Earth on September 19 uncovering the extraordinarily rich color spectra of Pluto.

“We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto. Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

High.resolution images of Pluto taken just before the closest approach of New Horizon spacecraft on July 14, 2015. The image shows features as small as 250 meters (820 feet) across, comprising of craters, faulted mountain blocks and the textured surface of the vast Sputnik Planum basin. This image is about 530 km (330 miles) across. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

​A high-resolution swath capturing details of Pluto's geology was taken by New Horizons’ narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, and downlinked on September 20. These images have revealed geological features similar to dunes, the older shoreline of a shrinking glacial ice lake, and fractured, angular water ice mountains with sheer cliffs.

A closer look at the Sputnik Planum surface shows it to be pockmarked by dense patterns of pits, low ridges and scalloped terrain.

Synthetic perspective view of Pluto shows what you would see approximately 1 800 km (1 100 miles) above Pluto's equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered region, informally named Cthulhu Regio, toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally named Sputink Planum. The terrain in this image spreads across 1 800 km (1 100 miles). The image was taken as New Horizon flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from the distance of 80 000 km (50 000 miles). Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The spacecraft also obtained map of methane ice across the Pluto's surface. This compositional map shows Sputnik Planum surface is abundant in methane, while none of it seems to be present across the Cthulhu Regio surface, which has only a few isolated ridges and crater rims, and across the mountains along the west side of Sputnik.

The compositions across Pluto's surface on the image above were mapped by NASA's New Horizon spacecraft as it flew by on July 14, 2015. On the left, a map of methan ice abundance reveals striking regional differences, with stronger methane absorption areas indicated by the brighter purple colors, and areas of lower abundances covered in black. This data has been received only for the left half of Pluto's disk so far. At the right, the methane map is merged with higher-resolution images from the spacecraft's LORRI. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.

Methane seems to be unequally distributed across Pluto's surface, its concentrations being higher on bright plains and crater rims, in contrast to the centers of craters or darker regions where none seems to be present.

“It's like the classic chicken-or-egg problem. We’re unsure why this is so, but the cool thing is that New Horizons has the ability to make exquisite compositional maps across the surface of Pluto, and that’ll be crucial to resolving how enigmatic Pluto works,” explained Will Grundy, New Horizons surface composition team lead from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

“With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both color and composition. I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI.

Featured image: Synthetic perspective view of Pluto showing a view set from about 1 800 km (1 100 miles) above Pluto's equatorial area. The view extends from dark, cratered region of Cthulhu Regio to the bright, smooth icy plains of Sputnik Planum. Terrain in this image spreads across 1 800 km (1 100 miles). The image was taken on July 14, 2015, during a flyby of NASA's New Horizon spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.

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