NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has just broadcast a new set of Pluto photos in high resolution, revealing the dwarf planet’s unusual traits.
The images show that the miniature planet’s landscape includes a wide variety of geographic features, from towering mountains to dunes and ice flows.
Moreover, one of the recently released photos gives a glimpse of Charon, the largest of Pluto’s satellites. The image shows tectonic elements such as large canyons, which suggests that even that moon has undergone its own evolution, instead of being just a lifeless sphere.
According to NASA experts, the assortment of elements on Pluto’s surface is similar to that encountered on Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s Galilean satellites.
“Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of process that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system”, declared Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Another key element featured in the photos, aside from these geologic oddities, is related to the multi-layered atmospheric haze surrounding Pluto. This results in a twilight effect which has allowed the space probe to study hidden portions of the planet which researchers hadn’t hoped to be able to analyze.
The latest batch of photos is at resolutions of around 400 meters (440 yards) per pixel and has doubled the total surface which humans have seen from the planet. Therefore, it enables astronomers to assess Pluto’ terrain with unparalleled clarity, and understand the phenomena that have shaped its scenery.
The surprising mix of elements includes craters, smooth terrain, valleys and dunes, a strange combination which may seem implausible.
For instance, according to William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis, the presence of sand ridges seems “completely wild”, given the fact that the planet’s atmosphere is very thin. Either Pluto’s atmosphere used to be thicker before, or there are other forces at work, speculates the scientist.
Whatever the logical explanation for its landforms, this over-the-top mixture actually exists, as proven during the historic flyby conducted by the New Horizons on July 14, when the dwarf planet’s surface was photographed from a distance of 80,000 km.
The unmanned probe, which is approximately the size of a small piano, completed its decade-long journey and became the first spaceship in human history to pass by Pluto and explore it in greater detail than ever before. Close-up photos were recorded and they are currently being downloaded by the New Horizons, alongside other data collected during the space mission.
The entire process of transmitting information will last approximately 1 year. According to NASA officials, the probe will begin broadcasting images of Pluto’s moons (Charon, Hydra and Nix) next week.
Image Source: NASA