9 years of journey, 3,000,000,000 miles deep into space, the New Horizons spacecraft that was launched by NASA eventually flew past the distant and mystical icy cold dwarf planet – Pluto for the first time in July 2015. This probably made the event, THE MOST important scientific achievement of 2015. A lot has happened since then. New Horizons has sent back several images of the Pluto System and the dwarf planet itself. However, THE MOST detailed and sharpest Pluto images were just released by NASA on 5th of December, 2015.
The new images reveal extraordinary details with a high resolution of 80m per pixel. What does that mean? It means that if that kind of resolution is used to photograph Earth from space, one could easily locate a small city park! These sharp images reveal extraordinary details of the dwarf planet’s terrain. These detailed images have come almost 5 months after Pluto flyby of New Horizons.
These new detailed and sharp Pluto images are a part of the photographic strip from the spacecraft. The images that have been revealed by NASA are of Sputnik Planum – an informal name used to describe an icy flat terrain of Pluto. Images of the so called al-Idrisi mountains are also present in this first batch of sharpest Pluto images.
The images that reveal incredibly detailed craters, ice fields and mountains were captured by LORRI – Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. LORRI captured images from a 50-mile-wide strip of the dwarf planet’s terrain which reveals extraordinary geological diversity. We may receive some more images but these sharp images may be the last of the best closeup images that we may see in decades or may be this lifetime.
Here are those images:
Over the next few days, more high resolution images of Pluto will be revealed. Once all images are sent, it will be over because New Horizons is already way past Pluto.
In case you are wondering what else has been revealed by New Horizons about the distant icy cold celestial body of our Solar System, allow us the opportunity to walk you through the same.
Pluto Images Reveal Frozen Water and Brilliant Blue Skies
When the New Horizons was launched for Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the scientists working on New Horizons mission weren’t very sure about the type of skies the spacecraft will be encountering. They had this vague perception of a dimly lit blue sky. However, was both right and wrong. Right because Pluto indeed has blue skies but wrong because the skies are not dim blue. They are bright blue!
The blue skies of the Pluto caught New Horizons investigators completely off guard because they didn’t expect to see brilliant blue skies in Kuiper Belt (which is actually an asteroid reservoir). Just in case you are wondering where this Kuiper Belt is coming from, it is about time we say that Pluto does not define the edge of our Solar System as it was thought before. It turns out that this dwarf planet is actually a large Kuiper Belt Object. The interstellar space actually lies beyond the Kuiper Belt.
The New Horizons has sent back color photos of the atmospheric haze of Pluto. This haze reveals a brilliant blue hue. According to the investigators of the New Horizons mission, there are either gray or red particles which create the atmospheric haze. The blue color that can be seen is because of these small particles, which are small enough for scattering blue light, creating blue skies over Pluto. According to the scientists, Earth’s blue skies are a result of nitrogen but in case of Pluto, the particles that make up the haze are not as small as nitrogen but are small enough to create the same color effect.
The incredible images of Pluto and its largest moon sent by the New Horizons craft shows that Pluto is red and the Charon (the largest moon of Pluto) has striking red color at its poles. According to scientists, the red color comes from tholins, which are soot-like or tar-like particles. These particles are formed when the ultraviolet light breaks methane and nitrogen, which then recombine all over again, forming macromolecules known as tholins. Experts hold the opinion that tholins are present high in the atmosphere of Pluto, which is why they are capable of scattering blue skies.
While the blue skies definitely grab attention, NASA also figured out other interesting things from the images that were sent over from New Horizons spacecraft. The other interesting find was water ice. The scientists notices several patches of water ice exposed, especially in those areas where dwarf planet has strongest red tints created by the tholins. However, they have not yet managed to explain why in strong red tinted areas some patches of water ice are exposed while others are not but they do believe that tholins have something to do with this. As per experts, there is water ice in other parts as well but they are just covered under ice created by other molecules.
Pluto Images Reveal The Beautiful Plutonian Sunset
You should take a look at this because it might be the only Plutonian suset you might be looking at in your lifetime. The New Horizons spacecraft captured the near-sunset view of the icy cold dwarf planet only 15 minutes after it reached the closest point to Pluto. The picture was taken on 14th of July, 2015.
What makes the picture above incredibly beautiful is its stunning high contrast. And… this extremely high contrast is just completely natural. Because of the high contrast, some of the features of the dwarf planet became starkly clear, which otherwise would not have been captured with such magnificent clarity.
Look at the picture and you will see the Sputnik Planum on the right extending up to the horizon of Pluto. On the left are mountain ranges which rise as high as 11,000 feet from ground level. Most incredible of all is the layer haze of Pluto’s atmosphere. The atmospheric haze starts very close to the dwarf planet’s surface and extends all the way up to 60 miles in sky.
A low-lying haze, as seen from the photograph, according to NASA is a type of fog and is an indication that there is a daily weather variation on Pluto just as it happens on Earth. The low-lying haze is not visible from above picture but can be identified from the picture below, which is a closeup snap of the ground showing a hazy surface.
And There’s Ice Flows and New Mountain Ranges Revealed in Pluto Images
There’s more surprise. New Horizons captured nitrogen ice sheet on the western half of the heart of Pluto where the Sputnik Planum sits. According to scientists, this nitrogen ice sheet definitely flowed at some point back in time in a way similar to glacier flows on our Earth. They say that this ice sheet must have flowed at least once in past few million years. According to John Spencer – a co-investigator of New Horizons mission said that the kind of surface seen on Pluto is only seen on active worlds such as our neighbor Mars and our very own Earth. This possibly means that Pluto is indeed an active world.
Not just the nitrogen ice sheet, the New Horizons also spotted another mountain range that has been named as Hillary Montes after Sir Edmund Hillary. The other mountain range that was previously spotten and had been named after Tenzing Norgay is the Norgay Montes. If these mountain ranges are compared to mountain ranges on Earth then Norgay Montes is similar to the Rockies while the Hillary Montes is similar to Appalachian Mountains.
Pluto Images Revealed The Heart of Pluto – A Love Note for Earthlings
And yes, the New Horizons picked up Pulto’s love note for earthlings on July 13, 2015 at 4:00 PM EDT. LORRI picked up one of the most prominent features of Pluto from a distance of 476,000 miles from surface of the dwarf planet before it flew for the closest approach to Pluto. This feature is of the shape of a heart stretching 1,600 kilometers or 1,000 miles across at the widest point. This heart sits right above Pluto’s equator.
The left half of the heart has a near perfect shape but the right side is somewhat broken. The interiors of Pluto’s heart look featureless with no visible craters but outside the heart are several craters, which experts think, are possibly billions of years old. Because of these stark difference inside and outside the heart’s region, scientists believe Pluto holds a very complex and long geological history.
Pluto in Color Costumes
It’s not that all you get to see are black and white photos. NASA folks have amped-up some of the photos with red and blue shades to reveals some of the extraordinary features of Pluto. Let us take a look at some of these photos including some black and white ones: