Scientists Captivated By Pluto’s Emerging Geological Wonders

Bit by the Pluto bug? Day by day, new images appear showing an ever clearer view of a world we inexplicably love. Call it a dwarf planet. Call it a planet. It’s the unknown, and we can’t help but be drawn there.

Pluto made history when it was discovered in 1930. In 2015, it’s doing it all over again. Check out the new geology peeping into view.I’m reminded of the early explorers who shoved off in wooden ships in search of land across the water. After a long and often perilous journey, the mists would finally clear and the dark outline of land take form in the distance. It’s been 9 1/2 years since our collective Pluto voyage began. Yeah, we’re almost there.

Science team members react to the latest image of Pluto at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab on July 10, 2015. Left to right: Cathy Olkin, Jason Cook, Alan Stern, Will Grundy, Casey Lisse, and Carly Howett. Credit: Michael Soluri
Science team members react to the latest image of Pluto at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab on July 10, 2015. Left to right: Cathy Olkin, Jason Cook, Alan Stern, Will Grundy, Casey Lisse, and Carly Howett.
Credit: Michael Soluri

Today’s image release clearly shows a world growing more geologically diverse by the day.

“We’re close enough now that we’re just starting to see Pluto’s geology,” said New Horizons program scientist Curt Niebur, on NASA’s website. Niebur, who’s keenly interested in the gray area just above the whale’s “tail” feature, called it a “unique transition region with a lot of dynamic processes interacting, which makes it of particular scientific interest.”

The non-annotated version of the top photo. The 'whale' lies near the dwarf planet's equator. Pluto's axis is tilted 123° to its orbital plane. Credit: NASA
The non-annotated version of the top photo. The ‘whale’ lies near the dwarf planet’s equator. Pluto’s axis is tilted 123° to its orbital plane. Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Not only that, but the new photo shows an approximately 1,000-mile-long band of swirly terrain crossing the planet from east to northeast, a large, polygonal (roughly hexagonal) feature and new textures within the ‘whale’.

Neptune's largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Neptune’s largest moon Triton photographed on August 25, 1989 by Voyager 2. Triton has a surface of mostly frozen nitrogen, a water ice-rich crust, an icy mantle and rock-metal core. Credit: NASA

Even to a layperson’s eye, Pluto’s terrain  appears very different from that of Ceres or Vesta. In trying to make sense of what we see, Neptune’s moon Triton may be our best Plutonian analog with its frosts, weird cantaloupe terrain and an assortment of dark patches, some produced by icy volcanism.

New Horizons was about 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Pluto and Charon when it snapped this portrait late on July 8, 2015. Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI
New Horizons was about 3.7 million miles (6 million kilometers) from Pluto and Charon when it snapped this portrait late on July 8, 2015.
Credits: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Other recent photos include this pretty view of Charon and Triton snapped late on July 8. NASA describes them eloquently as “two icy worlds, spinning around their common center of gravity like a pair of figure skaters clasping hands.” Charon and all of Pluto’s known moons formed from debris released when another planet struck Pluto long ago. New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern attributes its bland color to its composition — mostly water ice. Pluto in contrast has a mantle of water ice, but it’s coated with methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide ices and possibly organic compounds, too.

Color photos of Pluto and Charon side by side. The arcs along Pluto's right limb are artifacts but not the white border along the bottom. Could it be frost? Credit:
Color photos of Pluto and Charon side by side. The arcs along Pluto’s right limb are artifacts but not the white border along the bottom. Could it be frost? Credit: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

Hold on tight – there’s LOTS more to come!

24 Replies to “Scientists Captivated By Pluto’s Emerging Geological Wonders”

  1. It is simply going to be awesome, there is no other word for it, as those pictures get better and better. It’s like watching a slo-mo of a picture developing in the old style tins ….

    Good times ahead … good times.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. I have to add …. The one guys facial expression is priceless. The look of EXCITEMENT … and “OMG!!! Look at that…” moment, caught for all to enjoy the excitement of the moment. 🙂

  2. Great reporting, Bob!
    But keep your laptop handy because we’re expecting lots of reports from you – the closer New Horizons gets, the more frequent we need your reports to be.
    Let’s see … that means we want at least a hundred reports on the 14th…
    (Come to thinkovit, I s’pose that could happen!)

  3. Its a shame New Horizons will only be zipping by and not stopping to orbit and take in more details. I suppose the mission would have taken way too long to get the craft down to a speed where it could be inserted into an orbit?

    1. Another 35 years. Would you have prefered to wait until 2050? (The plutonium power source would’ve burned out by then). NH flew by Jupiter only 13 months after launch. Jupiter orbiter Juno takes 5 years to get there because it must be slow enough to enter orbit.

  4. 🙂

    I gather that NH will go silent for a while purely gathering data and pictures over a period near close encounter and then it’ll be occasional data sent in mixed with more science for the next month and then starting low resolution data dump…

    So when will the last picture come our way for a while?

    1. Steven,
      I know they’re going to release images sometime during the encounter day, but those might be ones taken earlier. During encounter, NH will be too busy with science and photography to send any close-ups. Expect close-ups the next day

      1. Looking at the Polar region on Charon reminds me of the Hexagonal feature on Neptune. Of course it’s not a true hexagon. But it’s interesting.

  5. Hey Bob… I’ve been wondering: seeing as how NH has only a single communications array, thus needs to turn away from the Pluto system and back towards Earth in order to send images once they’ve been taken… Do you know how often it needs to turn backwards to send us data?

    1. Hi Jeffrey,
      Every time mission control wants pictures or data returned, they command NH to turn toward the Earth during which time it can’t photograph or observe Pluto. They’ve taken special procedures just before the flyby to “clear out” the recorders to make room for the crunch of data expected during the flyby.

    2. Jeff, I think your question was answered earlier. NH will be too busy attending to the Pluto system to send anything back during close encounter. From what I have heard the results will be coming back for several weeks, if not months, after the encounter.

  6. Every day now it will get better and better and I know we have a lot more surprises from Both (Planets) I for one cant wait and thanks Bob for these great updates please keep us informed your doing a great job…

  7. There is a short (15min? 30 min?) daily update at http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html
    which they repeat. It’s brief, last few days no surprise announcements but yesterday a NH rep noted they were (as I recall) less than a mm/sec off on speed, in a orbital path box of 40×60 miles, and trying to get the time of close approach nailed down to within 100 sec of a projected time.

  8. Am hoping the darker ‘Whale’ feature is a liquid nitrogen ocean or lake!

    New Horizon’s does not have a radar to bounce off the surface as used by Cassini at Titan to find liquid lakes/seas. But Ralph, Lorri and PEPSSI might be able to do the combined data deed?

    Ralph: Visible and infrared imager/spectrometer
    LORRI: Long Range Reconnaissance Imager,
    PEPSSI: Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation.

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