Spectacular images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show breathtaking views of Pluto’s majestic icy mountains, streams of frozen nitrogen and haunting low-lying hazes. These views were taken by New Horizons’ camera at the spacecrafts closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 and downlinked to Earth on September 13.
In a closer look, below, Pluto’s crescent offers an oblique look across Plutonian landscapes with dramatic backlighting from the sun. It highlights Pluto’s varied terrains and extended atmosphere. The scene measures 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) across.
Alan Stern is New Horizons Principal Investigator. Stern said:
This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself. But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.
Owing to its favorable backlighting and high resolution, the above image also reveals new details of hazes throughout Pluto’s tenuous but extended nitrogen atmosphere. The image shows more than a dozen thin haze layers extending from near the ground to at least 60 miles (100 kilometers) above the surface. In addition, the image reveals at least one bank of fog-like, low-lying haze illuminated by the setting sun against Pluto’s dark side, raked by shadows from nearby mountains.
Will Grundy is lead of the New Horizons Composition team from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona. Grundy said:
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.
Combined with other recently downloaded pictures, this new image also provides evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice.
Bright areas east of the vast icy plain informally named Sputnik Planum appear to have been blanketed by these ices, which may have evaporated from the surface of Sputnik 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.
Alan Howard is a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Howard said:
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. 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,” added Stern, “and no one predicted it.
Bottom line: Spectacular images released September 18, 2015 from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show breathtaking views of Pluto’s majestic icy mountains, streams of frozen nitrogen and haunting low-lying hazes. These views were taken by New Horizons’ camera at the spacecrafts closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 and downlinked to Earth on September 13, 2015.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.