Pluto’s Stunning Mosaic and Insights Into Atmospheric Haze, Composition

A mosaic of Pluto’s cratered face is the newest release from NASA’s New Horizons Spacecraft. The New Horizons team also discussed their latest findings at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Zigzagging across Pluto east to west. Image credit: NASA/ JHU-APL/ SwRI

The stunning landscape portrait is a perfect compliment to an amazing color mosaic released weeks ago by NASA. The image was taken by New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager moments before it’s closest approach with the dwarf planet.  Over the last 5 months, the spacecraft has been returning images and data back to Earth, and Pluto continues to surprise and amaze planetary scientists.

“Pluto has greatly exceeded our expectations in diversity of landforms and processes – processes that continue to the present,” explained Alan Howard team contributor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

The mosaic image shows Pluto’s cratered plains eventually give way to massive glacial faults that wrap the planet. The dark area after the middle of the image highlights the mountainous area known as Wright Mons, which scientists believe could be cryovolcanic. The image ends with the terminator, the area that separates the planet’s day and night sides.

NASA scientists shared their findings at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Researchers highlighted the networks of eroded valleys on Pluto that have been carved up by glaciers, saying that they resemble “hanging valleys” found at Yellowstone National Park. The valleys are distinctive because the dip between the two large ridges still stands higher than the surrounding area.

Researchers ran models to help understand the polygon-shaped formations found on the left side of Pluto’s heart (Sputnik Planum). According to evidence from the models, as nitrogen evaporates and condenses higher up, the glaciers flow back inward creating the formations.

Scientists also examined the mysterious atmosphere haze discovered on Pluto. Data shows that the haze seems to have two distinct layers but scientists need more time to identify the source/ composition and study how it varies around the dwarf planet.


False color inset reveals two layers of Pluto’s haze. Image credit: NASA/ JHU-APL/ SwRI

“Like almost everything on Pluto, the haze is much more complicated than we thought,” said New Horizons team member Andy Cheng. “But with the excellent New Horizons data currently in hand, we soon expect to have a much better understanding,” he added.

And it looks like there is still much to look forward to.

“We’re much less than halfway through transmitting data about the Pluto system to Earth, but a wide variety of new scientific results are already emerging,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons’ principal investigator.


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