These high-resolution images are incredible and much more is to be learned about Pluto’s icy surface!
DailyMail has more…
Pluto’s landscape is far more varied than scientists could have ever imagined.
The latest high-resolution images of the dwarf planet show this diversity in unprecedented detail, highlighting what appears to be snake-skin-like patterns on its surface.
The clearest image of this was taken near the line that separates day from night, capturing a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that Nasa said astonished New Horizons team members.
‘It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,’ said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis.
‘It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.’
Scientists aren’t sure what causes the pattern, but theories include the impact of plate tectonics rippling the surface, or frozen gasses that are released when surface temperatures increase.
The ‘snakeskin’ image of Pluto’s surface is just one tantalising piece of data New Horizons sent back in recent days.
The spacecraft also captured the highest-resolution colour view yet of Pluto, as well as detailed spectral maps and other high-resolution images. The new ‘extended colour’ view of Pluto shows the extraordinarily rich colour palette of Pluto.
‘We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,’ said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
‘Pluto’s surface colours were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colours, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.’
Alongside this, a high-resolution swath across Pluto taken homes in on details of Pluto’s geology.
These images – the highest-resolution yet available of Pluto – reveal features that resemble dunes, the older shoreline of a shrinking glacial ice lake, and fractured, angular water ice mountains with sheer cliffs.
This closer look at the smooth, bright surface of the informally named Sputnik Planum reveals that it is actually pockmarked by dense patterns of pits, low ridges and scalloped terrain.
Dunes of bright volatile ice particles are a possible explanation, mission scientists say, but the ices of Sputnik may be especially susceptible to sublimation and formation of such corrugated ground.
Beyond the new images, new information comes from a just-obtained map of methane ice across part of Pluto’s surface that reveals striking contrasts.
Sputnik Planum has abundant methane, while the region informally named Cthulhu Regio shows none, aside from a few isolated ridges and crater rims. Mountains along the west flank of Sputnik lack methane as well.
The distribution of methane across the surface is anything but simple, with higher concentrations on bright plains and crater rims, but usually none in the centers of craters or darker regions.
Outside of Sputnik Planum, methane ice appears to favour brighter areas, but scientists aren’t sure if that’s because methane is more likely to condense there or that its condensation brightens those regions.
‘It’s like the classic chicken-or-egg problem,’ said Will Grundy, New Horizons surface composition team lead from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
‘We’re unsure why this is so, but the cool thing is that New Horizons has the ability to make exquisite compositional maps across the surface of Pluto, and that’ll be crucial to resolving how enigmatic Pluto works.’
‘With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both colour and composition,’ added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI.
‘I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day.’
Last week, Nasa released its first set of high-resolution images of Pluto majestic mountains, frozen nitrogen rivers and low-lying hazes.
On Monday, the space agency has combined these panoramas to create a spectacular flyover of the dwarf planet, revealing its icy terrain in incredible detail.
The animation begins just above the mountains dubbed Norgay Montes at a height of about 120 miles (200km).
It then takes the viewer north over Sputnik Planum, seen as the bright area to the left of the video, and Cthulhu Regio, which is the dark area to the right.
‘I primarily use these images to map craters across the surfaces of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, to understand the population of impactors from the Kuiper Belt striking Pluto and Charon.
‘While this is my research focus, another interest of mine is figuring out how to make visualisations that convey some of the sheer beauty and power of the features New Horizons is revealing.’