Pluto has “dragon scales,” or at least that’s the terminology being used to describe the high resolution NASA photos of a chain of mountains on the dwarf planet. And just how the oddly textured terrain was formed will have scientists speculating for some time to come, according to the space agency.
BBC News reported September 25 that NASA released photos this week with the highest resolution of any ever taken of the dwarf planet Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft in its historic flyover on July 14. The probe recorded massive amounts of data as it passed the small world and continues to send information back to Earth in batches.
Among the latest data from New Horizons were images that have scientists puzzled, like what appears to be a hundreds of miles-long mountain chain with a scaled or snakeskin effect. “It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” NASA geophysicist William McKinnon said in a statement. “It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology.”
Just how the terrain came into being has scientists at a loss for the moment. “This’ll really take time to figure out,” McKinnon admitted. But he wasn’t above a little quick speculation, saying that “maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.” (Because, a big round ball of wood or a dragon ball would simply be too fantastical, right? Or maybe just too much “Game of Thrones” binge-watching?)
The features can be seen in the stunning new composite photo of Pluto released by NASA. The photo was constructed using the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera on New Horizons and combines blue, red and near infrared (NIR) images to reveal a stunning portrait of the dwarf planet.
Still, the dragon “scales” mountains weren’t the only topographic feature in the high resolution NASA photos. Remember Pluto’s massive “heart,” that bright heart-shaped bit of terrain revealed in some of the first photos developed from New Horizons? Well, the higher resolution of the “heart” (the Tombaugh Regio), wherein the western part (the Sputnik Planum) at first appeared to be somewhat smooth, reveals that the area is actually characterized by a dune-like dippling of the dwarf planet’s surface.
New Horizons is currently moving further outward into the Kuiper Belt, a vast array of asteroids and iced objects — including Pluto and sister dwarf planets Haumea and Makemake — that are believed to be the remnants of material from the formation of the Solar System. More data from the July Pluto flyby is forthcoming.