Besides a heart, Pluto’s got an Earth-like side

Digital Original

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The latest images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft are in, and Pluto apparently looks a look more Earth-like than scientists were expecting.

Scientists are stunned over the strangely familiar, arctic look of Pluto’s majestic icy mountains, streams of frozen nitrogen, and haunting low-lying hazes.

The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right - also known as the "heart") is flanked to the west by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right – also known as the “heart”) is flanked to the west by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The new images also provide evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice.

Remember Pluto’s “heart” that took over social media recently? Just to the east of it, bright areas seem to have been blanketed by these exotic ices. The ice, which may have evaporated from the surface of the heart (which scientists call Sputnik Planum) and then been redeposited to the east. The new Ralph imager panorama also reveals glaciers flowing back into Sputnik Planum from this blanketed region; these features are similar to the frozen streams on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

Pluto’s ‘Heart’: Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRIPluto’s ‘Heart’: Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below.
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

 

“We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system,” said Alan Howard, a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.”

“Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” Stern added. “No one predicted it.”

In this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, the setting sun illuminates a fog that's cut by the parallel shadows of hills and small mountains. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers), and the width of the image is 115 miles (185 kilometers). Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRIIn this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, the setting sun illuminates a fog that’s cut by the parallel shadows of hills and small mountains. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers), and the width of the image is 115 miles (185 kilometers).
Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth,” said Will Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.

“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern said. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”

NASA


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