Awesome Blue Skies and Red Surface Ice Found at Pluto – The Other Red Planet

Much to the amazement and delight of scientists, the latest findings about Pluto reveal it possesses hazy blue skies and numerous red colored patches of water ice exposed on the surface of a world also now known as “The Other Red Planet.”

With each passing day, significant discoveries about Pluto continue piling up higher and higher as more and more data gathered and stored from this past summer’s historic flyby by NASA’s New Horizons reaches ground stations back here on Earth.

“Blue skies–Pluto is awesome!” says Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.

The bluish tint to Pluto’s skies were unexpectedly discovered after researchers examined the first color images of the high altitude atmospheric hazes returned by New Horizons last week that were taken by the probes Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC).

“Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt?” Stern said in a NASA statement.

During New Horizons flyby on July 14, 2015, it discovered that Pluto is the biggest object in the outer solar system and thus the ‘King of the Kuiper Belt.”

The Kuiper Belt comprises the third and outermost region of worlds in our solar system.

“It’s gorgeous!” exclaims Stern.

Moreover, the source of Pluto’s blue haze is different from Earth’s and more related to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon – currently being explored by NASA’s Cassini mission orbiting Saturn since 2004.

On Earth, the blue sky is caused by light scattering off tiny particles of nitrogen molecules. Whereas on Titan its related to soot-like particles called tholins.

Tholins are generated by a series of very complex sunlight-initiated chemical reactions between nitrogen and methane (CH4) high in the atmosphere. This eventually produces relatively small, soot-like particles of complex hydrocarbons.

“That striking blue tint tells us about the size and composition of the haze particles,” said New Horizons science team researcher Carly Howett, of SwRI, in a statement.

“A blue sky often results from scattering of sunlight by very small particles. On Earth, those particles are very tiny nitrogen molecules. On Pluto they appear to be larger — but still relatively small — soot-like particles we call tholins.”

As the tholins rain down on Pluto, they add to the widespread red surface coloring.

The Ralph instrument was also key in another discovery announced by New Horizons researchers.

Numerous small, exposed regions of water ice on Pluto’s surface were discovered by combining measurements from the Ralph MVIC spectral composition mapper and infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument.

The strongest signatures of water ice were found in the Virgil Fossa and Viking Terra regions berby the western edge of Pluto’s huge heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio feature – see image below.

Water Ice on Pluto: Regions with exposed water ice are highlighted in blue in this composite image from New Horizons’ Ralph instrument, combining visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) with infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The strongest signatures of water ice occur along Virgil Fossa, just west of Elliot crater on the left side of the inset image, and also in Viking Terra near the top of the frame. A major outcrop also occurs in Baré Montes towards the right of the image, along with numerous much smaller outcrops, mostly associated with impact craters and valleys between mountains. The scene is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) across. Note that all surface feature names are informal. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Water ice is only found in certain zones of Pluto for reasons yet to be understood. There may also be a relationship to the tholins, that likewise is yet to be gleaned.

“I’m surprised that this water ice is so red,” says Silvia Protopapa, a science team member from the University of Maryland, College Park. “We don’t yet understand the relationship between water ice and the reddish tholin colorants on Pluto’s surface.”

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 new mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/

As of today, New Horizons remains healthy and is over 3.1 billion miles (5 billion kilometers) from Earth.

The team hopes to fire up the thrusters later this fall to propel the spacecraft toward a second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) in 2019 tentativley named PT1, for Potential Target 1. It is much smaller than Pluto and was recently selected based on images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

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

Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, research scientist, freelance science journalist (KSC area,FL) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calendars including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, FOX, BBC,, Spaceflight Now, Science and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, NASA Wallops, NASA Michoud/Stennis/Langley and on over 80 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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