Recent photos sent back by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft show a series of odd massive dark spots on Pluto. Stranger still, the discolorations are equidistant and located on the planetoid’s equator. At present, scientists aren’t quite certain what the 300-mile wide spots represent but they are hopeful that they will be able to solve the mystery when New Horizons performs its close fly-by on July 14.
The Washington Post reported July 2 that new data sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft were used to create the latest color photo of Pluto, providing NASA scientists with several new mysteries, not the least being those huge dark spots roughly the size of Missouri. The image data was taken between June 25 and June 27, with the most recent photo created by, according to Forbes, combining high resolution black-and-white images gathered from the spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at over 9 million miles from the planetoid and coloring provided by lower-resolution colour data from the onboard Ralph instrument.
“It’s a real puzzle. We don’t know what the spots are, and we can’t wait to find out,” Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, the New Horizons principal investigator, said in a statement. “Also puzzling is the longstanding and dramatic difference in the colors and appearance of Pluto compared to its darker and grayer moon Charon.”
Space.com posted a NASA video of the new images of Pluto and Charon, its largest moon, and described the Missouri-sized dark spots as “finger print-like.” In looking at the NASA photos, it can be seen clearly that the spots discolor the planet’s cream-colored surface in an odd pattern somewhat resembling marks that fingers pressed into a surface might make. Scientists have noted that the cream coloring of Pluto, which is accurate in that the image depicted is what the human eye would recognize, is quite different from the traditional color schemes often given the far-flung world by renderings of artists, conceptualizations that tended toward cooler and darker colors.
Scientists also announced the detection of methane ice on Pluto, although they do not know its source. Since methane can be produce organically and inorganically, its confirmed presence holds a special place of intrigue for astrobiologists.
The New Horizons Mission has traveled more than nine years and roughly three billion miles to get to its present location, which is at just over 9 million miles from Pluto and closing at a distance of 30,000 miles per hour. At its closest, the spacecraft will be only 7,700 miles from the planetoid, training all its instrumentation at the small world and its close companion, Charon. Data gathered by the Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI) instrument, which has already begun sending back data on a daily basis regarding the space environment near Pluto. PEPSSI’s job, according to Forbes, is to “taste” Pluto’s atmosphere. It will do so by the detection of escaping ions from said atmosphere and analyzing the ions to ascertain its composition and how quickly it is escaping the planetoid’s hold.
When New Horizons reaches its fly-by stage, it will be able to determine Pluto’s make-up, create temperature maps, and even search for auroras in its atmosphere. The quick-moving spacecraft will, according to the Los Angeles Times, also acquire photos of the Pluto’s surface at such a high resolution that, if they were photos of Los Angeles, they would reveal individual runways at Los Angeles International Airport.