A new set of photographs captured by NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft has revealed Pluto’s atmosphere backlit by the sun. They’re some of the most beautiful images we’ve seen, so sit back, relax, and gaze into the haze.
The batch was taken just 15 minutes after New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto on July 14, from a mere 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) above the surface. “[The images] really make you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” says NASA Principal Investigator Alan Stern. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”
In the panorama above, you can clearly make out the smooth, icy “Sputnik Planum” (also known as Pluto’s Heart). It’s hard to get a sense of scale, but what you’re looking at represents a whopping 230 miles of Plutonian landscape. Those seemingly tiny mountains (the Norgay Montes) stretch 11,000 feet into the foggy atmosphere.
A closer look reveals something amazing: bright areas east of the heart appear to be coated by recently-deposited nitrogen ice, suggesting the dwarf planet might have its own exotic version of our water cycle. “Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” explains Stern. “And no one predicted it.”
These ices may have evaporated from the surface of Sputnik, and later been redeposited to the east, just like how water evaporates from our ocean, and falls as snow. The image also reveals glaciers flowing back into the heart from this blanketed region, similar to the frozen streams on the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica.
The sun’s dim light has allowed us to see Pluto’s atmosphere like never before, illuminating the various layers within it. “These low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth,” says team member Will Grundy. It will take 16 months for New Horizons to send its 10-year cache of data, back to Earth, but right off the bat it looks like the little celestial outlier sill has some surprises in store.
IMAGES: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute; NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/J. Major