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

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-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. 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.

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: NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI

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

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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