NASA released the latest data and images to come from the New Horizons space probe on Friday, which recently flew closely by Pluto. The findings reveal an active planet where hydrocarbons fall as snow or sleet and glaciers made of nitrogen ice flow. Pluto may still be officially designated as a “dwarf planet” but it is turning out to be a world that is stranger and more complex than scientists were able to imagine before the passage of New Horizons.
On spectacular image shows Pluto with the sun behind it, illuminating a thin atmosphere filled with haze reaching 80 miles from the surface of the planet, far higher than scientists previously theorized. The New Horizon scientists believe that Pluto has something akin to a weather cycle.
“Models suggest that the hazes form when ultraviolet sunlight breaks apart methane gas, a simple hydrocarbon known to reside throughout Pluto’s atmosphere. The breakdown of methane triggers the buildup of more complex hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene and acetylene, which were also discovered at Pluto by New Horizons. As these hydrocarbons fall to the lower, colder parts of the atmosphere, they condense as ice particles, forming the hazes. Ultraviolent sunlight chemically converts hazes into tholins, the dark hydrocarbons that color Pluto’s surface.”
New Horizons also imaged what appears to be glaciers of nitrogen ice on the northern edge of a region dubbed Sputnik Planum, located on the western part of the heart shaped area known informally as Tombaugh Regio. The glaciers not only have flowed in the past, but may still be flowing.
But that is not all that was found at Sputnik Planum.
“The ‘heart of the heart,’ Sputnik Planum, is suggestive of a reservoir of ices. The two bluish-white “lobes” that extend to the southwest and northeast of the “heart” may represent exotic ices being transported away from Sputnik Planum.
“Additionally, new compositional data from New Horizons’ Ralph instrument indicate that the center of Sputnik Planum is rich in nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane ices. ‘At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,’ said Bill McKinnon, of Washington University in St. Louis, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain (informally named ‘Cthulhu Regio’) has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.
“The newly-discovered range of mountains rises one mile (1.6 kilometers) above the surrounding plains, similar to the height of the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. These peaks have been informally named Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains) for Sir Edmund Hillary, who first summited Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953.”
Taken together, the two findings suggest that, far from being an inert Kuiper Belt ball of ice and rock, Pluto is an active world, with geological and atmospheric processes unlike anything hitherto observed in other worlds of the solar system. The New Horizon mission has proven to be one of the most productive space missions in recent years,