New Horizons’ Top Ten Images, Discoveries at Pluto
After a journey of 9.5 years through the Solar System, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015.
Since then, the spacecraft has sent back spectacular images of the dwarf planet, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons, as well as many other kinds of data.
New Horizons’ Top 10 Pictures
From Pluto’s iconic ‘heart’ to its flowing glaciers and blue skies, it’s hard to pick just one favorite picture. So members of the New Horizons team have picked 10.
1. Pluto’s heart:
This view is dominated by the large, bright feature informally named the ‘heart,’ which measures 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across. Much of the heart’s interior appears featureless — possibly a sign of ongoing geologic processes.
2. Pluto’s big moon Charon:
Charon is the largest satellite relative to its planet in the Solar System. Many planetary scientists expected the moon to be a monotonous, crater-battered world. Instead, they’re finding a landscape covered with mountains, canyons, landslides, surface-color variations and more.
3. Pluto and Charon in enhanced color:
This composite of enhanced color images of Pluto and Charon highlights the striking differences between the two bodies. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their true separation is not to scale.
4. Spectacular backlit panorama of Pluto:
This view of Pluto’s crescent — taken by New Horizons’ MVIC camera on July 14, 2015, and downlinked to Earth on September 13 — offers an oblique look across Plutonian landscapes with dramatic backlighting from the Sun. It spectacularly highlights Pluto’s varied terrains and extended atmosphere.
5. Pluto’s blue skies:
The thin atmosphere of Pluto rings its silhouette like a blue halo in this picture taken by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera.
6. Exotic ices on Pluto:
New Horizons found evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface, at the left edge of its bright heart-shaped area.
7. Jagged ice shorelines and snowy pits:
This enhanced color view zooms in on the southeastern portion of Pluto’s great ice plains, where at lower right the plains border rugged, dark highlands named Krun Macula. Pluto is believed to get its dark red color from tholins, complex molecules found across much of the surface. Krun Macula rises 1.5 miles (2.5 km) above the surrounding plain –named Sputnik Planum – and is scarred by clusters of connected, roughly circular pits that typically reach between 5 and 8 miles (8 and 13 km) across, and up to 1.5 miles (2.5 km) deep. At the boundary with Sputnik Planum, these pits form deep valleys reaching more than 25 miles (40 km) long, 12.5 miles (20 km) wide and almost 2 miles (3 km) deep and have floors covered with nitrogen ice. New Horizons scientists think these pits may have formed through surface collapse, although what may have prompted such a collapse is a mystery.
8. Snakeskin terrain:
This image from New Horizons shows ‘bladed’ terrain in a region known as Tartarus Dorsa. A digital elevation model created by New Horizons scientists shows that the bladed structures have typical relief of about 1,640 feet (500 m). Their relative spacing of 1.9-3.1 miles (3-5) km makes them some of the steepest features seen on Pluto.
9. Methane snow on Pluto’s peaks:
New Horizons discovered a chain of exotic snowcapped mountains stretching across the dark expanse on Pluto’s Cthulhu Regio.
10. Composition maps of Pluto:
The powerful instruments on New Horizons not only gave scientists insight on what Pluto looked like, their data also confirmed (or, in many cases, dispelled) their ideas of what Pluto was made of. These compositional maps indicate the regions rich in ices of methane (CH4), nitrogen (N2), carbon monoxide (CO), and, of course, water ice (H2O).
New Horizons’ Top 10 Discoveries
Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator and a researcher at the Southwest Research Institute, lists the mission’s most surprising findings from Pluto:
1. The complexity of Pluto and its satellites is far beyond what planetary scientists expected.
2. The degree of current activity on Pluto’s surface and the youth of some surfaces on the dwarf planet are astounding.
3. Pluto’s atmospheric hazes and lower-than-predicted atmospheric escape rate upended all of the pre-flyby models.
4. Pluto’s atmosphere is blue.
5. Pluto’s heart-shaped nitrogen glacier – known as Sputnik Planum – is the largest known glacier in the Solar System.
6. Pluto shows evidence of vast changes in atmospheric pressure and, possibly, past presence of running or standing liquid volatiles on its surface – something only seen elsewhere on Earth, Mars and Saturn’s moon Titan.
7. Charon’s dark, red polar cap is unprecedented in the Solar System and may be the result of atmospheric gases that escaped Pluto and then accreted on Charon’s surface.
8. Charon’s enormous equatorial extensional tectonic belt hints at the freezing of a former water ice ocean inside Charon in the distant past. Other evidence found by New Horizons indicates Pluto could well have an internal water-ice ocean today.
9. All of Pluto’s moons that can be age-dated by surface craters have the same, ancient age – adding weight to the theory that they were formed together in a single collision between Pluto and another planet in the Kuiper Belt long ago.
10. The lack of additional Pluto satellites beyond what was discovered before New Horizons was unexpected.
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