Categories: New HorizonsPluto

New Pluto Images Show Possible Dunes, Crepuscular Rays, Unimaginable Complexity

New Horizons scientists say they are “reeling” from the new images sent back from the spacecraft which were released today. The new data set shows an amazing range of complex features on Pluto’s surface and in its atmosphere.

New images show there might even be a field of dark wind-blown dunes, among other possibilities.

“Seeing dunes on Pluto — if that is what they are — would be completely wild, because Pluto’s atmosphere today is so thin,” said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington University, St. Louis. “Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven’t figured out is at work. It’s a head-scratcher.”

Plus, a new view of Pluto’s hazy backlit atmosphere shows what are likely crepuscular rays — shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountain ranges on Pluto, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the sun sets behind mountains on Earth.

Two different versions of an image of Pluto’s haze layers, taken by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto’s dark side nearly 16 hours after close approach, from a distance of 480,000 miles (770,000 kilometers). The left version has had only minor processing, while the right version has been specially processed to reveal a large number of discrete haze layers in the atmosphere. Subtle parallel streaks in the haze may be crepuscular rays- shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountain ranges on Pluto, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the sun sets behind mountains on Earth.Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

Scientists say these new images reveal that Pluto’s global atmospheric haze has many more layers than scientists realized, and that the haze actually creates a twilight effect that softly illuminates nightside terrain near sunset, making them visible to the cameras aboard New Horizons.

“This bonus twilight view is a wonderful gift that Pluto has handed to us,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from SwRI. “Now we can study geology in terrain that we never expected to see.”

This image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, processed in two different ways, shows how Pluto’s bright, high-altitude atmospheric haze produces a twilight that softly illuminates the surface before sunrise and after sunset, allowing the sensitive cameras on New Horizons to see details in nighttime regions that would otherwise be invisible. The right-hand version of the image has been greatly brightened to bring out faint details of rugged haze-lit topography beyond Pluto’s terminator, which is the line separating day and night. The image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

These new images are the first to be sent from the spacecraft since shortly after it flew past the Pluto system in July of this year. This is the beginning of an “intensive” downlink session that will last for a year or more, sending back the 50 gigabits or so of data the spacecraft collected and stored on its digital recorders during the flyby. These new images are “selected high priority” data-sets that the science team has been anxiously waiting for.

The new images are “lossless” — meaning the data sent back from the New Horizon spacecraft is using a type of data compression algorithms that allows the original data to be perfectly reconstructed from the compressed data. Planetary astronomer Alex Parker said on Twitter that this means the even views we’ve seen in the previous Pluto images from New Horizons are much sharper and crisper.

Here are more:

A close-up of a dark area on the edge of the heart-shaped light region on Pluto. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Besides the dunes and new atmospheric imagery, other views show nitrogen ice flows that apparently oozed out of mountainous regions onto plains, and even networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over Pluto’s surface. They also show large regions that display chaotically jumbled mountains, which reminded many of the terrain on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.”

In the center of this 300-mile (470-kilometer) wide image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is a large region of jumbled, broken terrain on the northwestern edge of the vast, icy plain informally called Sputnik Planum, to the right. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

There’s even a sharper view of Charon, which we discussed in an article earlier today, with its mysterious red feature on the north pole.

This image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft 10 hours before its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers), is a recently downlinked, much higher quality version of a Charon image released on July 15. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The New Horizons spacecraft is now about 5 billion kilometers (more than 3 billion miles) from Earth, and more than 69 million kilometers (43 million miles) beyond Pluto. The team says the spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally.

You can see all the latest imagery sent back from New Horizons at this website. New images will be added every week, according to the New Horizons staff, likely on Fridays.

Additional reading: NASA press release.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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