This color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).   Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Astonishing ‘Snakeskin’ Textured Mountains Discovered on Pluto

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

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The more we learn about Pluto, the weirder and weirder it gets.

The newest batch of high resolution Plutonian images has yielded “astonishing” discoveries of previously unseen ‘snakeskin’ textured mountains, that are simultaneously “dazzling and mystifying” scientists analyzing the latest data just returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

New Horizons swooped past the Pluto planetary system during mankind’s history making first encounter on July 14, 2015 at a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Data from that priceless, once in a lifetime flyby is now trickling back to Earth.

The ‘snakeskin’ feature on Pluto’s utterly bizarre surface was unveiled to “astonished” scientists scrutinizing the latest data dump received over the past week, that included images taken by the Ralph instruments Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).

Features as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers) are resolved in detail.

The MVIC image stretches about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across the ‘snakeskin’ like landscape composed of rounded and bizarrely textured mountains that are informally named Tartarus Dorsa and that borders the bodies day-night terminator.

It shows intricate patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between that are puzzling researchers.

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis.

“It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”

The Ralph/MVIC image is actually a composite of blue, red and infrared images.

The image of Tartarus Dorsa reveals a “multitude of previously unseen topographic and compositional details. It captures a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that has astonished New Horizons team members,” say officials.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).  The viewer is encouraged to zoom in on the image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features.   Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). The viewer is encouraged to zoom in on the image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Another wider angle global view of Pluto downlinked on Sept. 19 shows a new “extended color” view of Pluto with an the extraordinarily rich color palette of the planet.

“We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

“Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”

The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Beyond MVIC, additional new images taken by New Horizons’ narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) during the July 14 were downlinked on Sept. 20.

They focus on the Sputnik Planum ice plains on the left side of the famous heart shaped Tombaugh Regio feature and are the highest resolution yet – as seen below. The team added color based on the global MVIC map shown above.

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from a larger, high-resolution mosaic, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from a larger, high-resolution mosaic, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Barely 5 or 6 percent of the 50 gigabits of data captured by New Horizons has been received by ground stations back on Earth.

“With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both color and composition,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI.

“I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day.”

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap.

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015.   The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).  This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

This new global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon - shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon – shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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Smokey
Member
Smokey
September 25, 2015 2:08 AM
That lead photo has me wondering if that by itself was worth the cost of the New Horizons mission. Just wow. After doing some image searches of ripples in various substances (mud, ice, etc.), I find that the parallel ripples which sometimes form across glaciers on Earth are similar, but still not close enough for my taste to explain these features. To my (admittedly untrained) eye, it appears that those “ripples(?)” post-date at least a handful of large impact craters, suggesting an ongoing process. My imagination conjures a persistent regional wind field which is either ablating/melting solid material and then immediately re-depositing it on downwind surfaces, or perhaps simply sculpting semi-solid ices directly into the fantastic shapes we’re… Read more »
Jeffrey Boerst
Member
September 25, 2015 4:13 AM

Interesting and reasonable hypotheses I’ve not read elsewhere. It’d be great if one turns out to be correct! wink

Smokey
Member
Smokey
September 25, 2015 2:22 AM

And for the life of me, as I look at more & more images of Sputnik Planum I cannot get past the thought of raspberry ice cream melting into a root beer or cream soda float. Too weird.

crocodilebomb
Member
crocodilebomb
September 25, 2015 2:52 AM

So awesome. Please tell me there is a green channel and they just haven’t downloaded it yet.

crocodilebomb
Member
crocodilebomb
September 25, 2015 5:50 PM

Answering my own question: they already knew there was so little green they didn’t bother packing a filter. Green could be gotten by subtracting red and blue from the broadband white channel, if there was any to be had. Specifically, MVIC maps blue (400-550 nm), red (540-700 nm), near IR (780 – 975 nm) and narrow band methane (860 – 910 nm).

Jeffrey Boerst
Member
September 25, 2015 4:16 AM

It’s absolutely wonderful, IMO that the last of the “Classic 9” turns out to be ANYTHING but the least! I wonder if (m)any of these unique features will be present on 2014 MU69..? Perhaps such landforms are more common that far out due to the extreme virtually Sol-less environs? ~~~ Or perhaps it’s the outline of part of the Elder God that slumbers there dreamless’ unspeakable, Aeuclidian hide…?

robst247
Member
September 25, 2015 6:51 AM
Jaw-droppingly amazing image! I agree with Smokey: the rippled texture is just like rain moving diagonally up the windscreen of a fast-moving car. It also reminds me of the effect you sometimes get when you’re covering a brick wall with gypsum plaster that is too moist and you try to smooth it down with a wet spatula. With the spatula still sliding sideways, you lift it off the surface and get a very similar effect. (Someone forgot to sand that part down.) Just look at the jagged shadows of the ripples in that low-lying smooth grey patch to the right of centre and down a bit (the largest grey patch). The ripples are really high! Grab your snowboard… Read more »
Bryan
Member
Bryan
September 25, 2015 8:02 AM
I agree with all the comments above! I just keep thinking how much planetary science has changed in the last 40+ years! I remember one of my professors wistfully clearing shelf after shelf of “standard”, pre-space probe books and atlases which were the planetary reference texts of the time–happened as soon as the Voyager probes sent back the first few images. He was floored, but excited at the same time, and told me he would have to revamp most of his lectures in this area. He got some solace, however. Rather than throwing them in the trash, he had a rubber stamp made up with which he had me stamp all of the affected books (and there were… Read more »
Jeffrey Boerst
Member
September 25, 2015 8:10 AM

Great flash-back barometer! I bet he’d have a poo-hemorrhage today!

hydrazine
Member
hydrazine
September 25, 2015 8:21 AM

Fascinating! Rough terrain punctuated by very smooth areas. To me it looks like dunes and frozen lakes. Considering Pluto’s seasonal meteorological variations maybe that’s what this is. Amazing pictures. Big hand to all those who made this project happen.
/hydrazine

UFOsMOTHER
Member
UFOsMOTHER
September 25, 2015 4:38 PM

This mission could only have been better if we saw Aliens and Buildings on Pluto what a Great Job they all did well done a Fantastic Bit of Science…

Pvt.Pantzov
Member
September 26, 2015 4:03 AM

agreed. and still more info to come…

we can still look forward to probes at some future date for the KBOs. i’d like to be alive to witness a sedna mission (doubtful), or whatever significantly sized object becomes the most distant yet discovered.

Kawarthajon
Member
Kawarthajon
September 28, 2015 9:41 AM

Ok, I’m no scientist, but those are definitely alien buildings designed to built anti-Earth attack ships! Without a doubt! wink

Actually, I see very similar structures each spring, when the piles of dirty snow melt in the heat of the sun and create these intricate structures. Maybe something to do with the sun heating different materials, sublimating some away, while others remain.

wpDiscuz