Pluto’s Intricate Landscapes and Unexpected Features Revealed by New Images

NASA’s ‘New Horizons’ spacecraft has sent back to earth some new high – resolution images of Pluto. The images have unveiled surprising features about this dwarf planet. NASA has been releasing the images over the last 2 days and are better in resolution than the ones taken in July. The spacecraft took these photos while flying within 8,000 miles of the planet’s surface. In the images one could see landforms like patchy terrains, sharp nitrogen ice flows and linear features like that of sand dunes. When observed as a silhouette what makes Pluto breathtakingly beautiful is its puffy atmosphere consisting of hazy layers of nitrogen. The atmospheric rays could also be seen at the time of dawn and dusk. Other features like Plutonian craters, mountains and valleys give it a bumpy outline at twilight.

Pluto’s Intricate Landscapes and Unexpected Features Revealed by New Images

Alan Stern, principal investigator in the mission said, “Pluto’s geology is incredibly diverse. I think it’s magical. It’s absolutely breathtaking.” However, still the scientists aren’t sure how Pluto got its present state of extreme diversity. But, they expect to get some clues from the data that will be available by the next year. The data is also expected to shower some light over Pluto’s family members – its 4 small satellites (Nix, Kerberos, Styx and Hydra) and one large moon “Charon”.
Some images of Charon were also released yesterday. Researchers say that even though Charon appears to be more dull than Pluto, it does not have a diverse geology or composition and there is no puffy atmosphere like Pluto. Many scientists thought it is a lifeless cratered sphere, but as it appears to be, it is not! Stern says, “Charon has its own history. There are faults, or other kinds of tectonic features on the surface — big canyons, clear evidence that there was some evolution on the surface, not just things bombarding it from the outside.”

Another surprising feature that came into light is a dark stain at the north pole of Charon. According to scientists it might be made up of ‘irradiated organic molecules’ that came from Pluto. The moon’s south pole is a complete mystery.

The best idea taking shape here is that an impact that formed Earth – moon system caused the formation of Pluto – Charon system too. The 4 smaller moons might be the shards of debris formed as a result of collision. But, these moons pose another question – why one moon is dark and others bright if they are result of same matter? Adding to the confusion are Nix’s pics which show that it is brighter than both Pluto and Charon. This 30 – mile long moon has one huge crater with some red material surrounding it. Stern said, “Whether that’s an impact crater or something else is a little bit TBD. It’s interesting that we don’t see a lot of other craters on its surface. We have some ideas about that, but it’s still early.”

Image Courtesy: National Geographic

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