Thousands of Pits Punctuate Pluto’s Forbidding Plains in Latest Photos

A brand new batch of Pluto and Charon photos showed up today on the New Horizons LORRI (LOng-Range Reconnaissance Imager) site. The photos were taken during the close flyby of the system on July 14, 2015 and show rich detail including craters and parallel cracks on Charon and thousands of small pits punctuating Pluto’s nitrogen ice landscape. Have at ’em!

This wider view shows the snakeskin-like textured surface of Pluto’s icy plains riddled with small pits. It almost looks like the dark areas in the sinuous channels between the mounds were once covered with frost or ice that has since sublimated away. They look similar to the polar regions on Mars where carbon dioxide frost burns off in the spring to reveal darker material beneath. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The first couple images feature the region informally known as Sputnik Planum. According to a release from NASA today, scientists think the region is composed of volatile ices such as solid nitrogen. They theorize that the pits and troughs – typically hundreds of meters across and tens of meters deep – are possibly formed by sublimation or evaporation of these ices in Pluto’s thin atmosphere. Still, their curious shapes and alignments remain a mystery. Adding to the intrigue is that even when seen up close, no impact craters are visible, testifying to the icy plain’s extreme geologic youth.

By the way, there are more images at the LORRI link at top. I picked a representative selection but I encourage you to visit and explore.

Now that’s what I call getting a photo in low light. Sunlight scrapes across rugged mountains as well as highlight the ubiquitous pitted terrain. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Life’s definitely the pits on Pluto’s Tombaugh Regio. This photo shows the fainter “ghost” pits well. Is ice filling them in or are we seeing the beginning of a pit’s formation? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
A fine view of Pluto’s largest moon Charon and its vast canyon system. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Looking over Charon’s dark north polar region, the border of which is highlighted by several beautiful rayed craters. Not that it’s necessarily related, but the dark spot reminds me of a lunar mare or sea. On the moon, cracks in the crust allowed lava to fill gigantic basins to create the maria. Could material from beneath Charon have bubbled up to fill an ancient impact? Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Speaking of the Moon, the large cracks at left resemble lunar rills, some of which formed through faulting / fracturing and others as conduits for lava flows. The multiple, fine cracks  are interesting. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Splendid rayed crater with an interesting contrast between dark and light ejecta. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
A busy region on Charon, the meeting place of different terrains. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI


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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