Pluto Spectacular! Glaciers, Hazes, Majestic Peaks Revealed in New Photos

As the hazy, lazy days of summer come to a close, the New Horizons team released a brand new set of incredible images of a very atmospheric Pluto.

Can you believe the detail in these photos? Back-lit by the Sun, we see icy plains, rugged mountains, glacier-cut terrain and multiple layers of haze just like those on a steamy August afternoon.

Just look at those pyramidal mountain peaks right next to those relatively smooth, icy plains. 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 km) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 km) across.

The scene measures 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) across and was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km) on July 15 just after closest approach. Because backlighting highlights fine aerosols suspended in the atmosphere (think of seeing your breath on a cold winter day against the Sun), these photos show the amazing complexity of Pluto’s atmosphere with more than a dozen thin haze layers extending from near the ground to at least 60 miles (100 km) above the surface.

In this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, the setting sun illuminates a bank of fog or low-lying near-surface haze sliced by the parallel shadows of many local hills and small mountains. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km), and the width of the image is 115 miles (185 km).

“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern in a press release today. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”

Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below.

I find the hazes the most amazing aspect of the photos. They remind me of crepuscular rays, those beams of sunshine that shine between breaks in the clouds near sunset and sunrise. It chills and thrills me to the bone to see such earthly sights on a bitterly cold orb more than 3 billion miles from home.

Ice, probably frozen nitrogen, appears to have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 390-mile (630-km) wide image is draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the informally named Sputnik Planum through the 2- to 5-mile (3- to 8-km) wide valleys indicated by the red arrows. On Earth this would be considered a valley glacier. The flow front of the ice moving into Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain.

But that’s not all that’s close to our hearts on Pluto. The photos reveal nitrogen ice apparently flowing downhill from mountainous highlands into a broad, smooth basin. Combined with other recently downloaded pictures, this new image (above) provides evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice.

This might be the most remarkable image of all. It covers the same region as the image above, but is re-projected from the oblique, backlit view shown in the new crescent image of Pluto. The backlighting highlights the intricate flow lines on the valley glaciers. The flow front of the ice moving into the informally named Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. We’re looking at a scene 390 miles (630 km) across.

Nitrogen ice in the vast, relatively smooth Sputnik Planum may have vaporized in sunlight and then redeposited as ice in the bright, rugged region to its east. The new Ralph imager panorama also reveals glaciers flowing back from the blanketed mountain region into Sputnik Planum; these features are similar to the frozen streams on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.

Who knew that by going to Pluto we’d see such familiarity? But there you have it.

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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