Spotlight On Pluto’s Frozen Polar Canyons

This enhanced color view shows long canyons running vertically across Pluto’s north polar region — part of the informally named Lowell Regio, named for Percival Lowell, who founded Lowell Observatory and initiated the search that led to Pluto’s discovery. The widest of the canyons is about 45 miles (75 km) wide and runs close to the north pole. Roughly parallel secondary canyons to the east and west are approximately 6 miles (10 km) wide. Click for a hi-res view. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

Pluto’s frozen nitrogen custard “heart” has certainly received its share of attention. Dozens of wide and close-up photos homing on this fascinating region rimmed by mountains and badlands have been relayed back to Earth by NASA’s New Horizons probe after last July’s flyby. For being only 1,473 miles (2,370 km) in diameter, Pluto displays an incredible diversity of landscapes.

Annotated version showing sinuous valleys, canyons and depressions and irregular-shaped pits. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI with additional annotations by the author

This week, the New Horizons team shifted its focus northward, re-releasing an enhanced color image of the north polar area that was originally part of a high-resolution full-disk photograph of Pluto. Inside of the widest canyon, you can trace the sinuous outline of a narrower valley similar in outward appearance to the Moon’s Alpine Valleycut by a narrow, curvy rill that once served as a conduit for lava.

A composite of enhanced color images of Pluto (lower right) and Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on July 14, 2015. This image highlights the striking differences between Pluto and Charon. The color and brightness of both Pluto and Charon have been processed identically to allow direct comparison of their surface properties, and to highlight the similarity between Charon’s polar red terrain and Pluto’s equatorial red terrain. Pluto and Charon are shown with approximately correct relative sizes, but their separation is not to scale. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

We see multiple canyons in Pluto’s polar region, their walls broken and degraded compared to canyons seen elsewhere on the planet. Signs that they may be older and made of weaker materials and likely formed in ancient times when Pluto was more tectonically active. Perhaps they’re related to that long-ago dance between Pluto and its largest moon Charon as the two transitioned into their current tidally-locked embrace.

Cropped version with arrows pointing to three, odd-shaped pits that may reflect sinking of Pluto’s crust. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

In the lower right corner of the image, check out those funky-shaped pits that resemble the melting outlines of boot prints in the snow. They reach 45 miles (70 km) across and 2.5 miles (4 km) deep and may indicate locations where subsurface ice has melted or sublimated (vaporized) from below, causing the ground to collapse.

Notice the variation in color across the landscape from yellow-orange to pale blue. High elevations show up in a distinctive yellow, not seen elsewhere on Pluto, with lower elevations and latitudes a bluish gray. New Horizons’ infrared measurements show abundant methane ice across the Lowell Region, with relatively little nitrogen ice. The yellow terrains may be older methane deposits that have been more processed by solar UV light than the bluer terrain. The color variations are especially striking in the area of the collapse pits.

The new map shows exposed water ice at Pluto to be considerably more widespread across its surface than was previously known. Its greatest concentration lies in the red-hued regions (in visual light) to the west of Tombaugh Regio, the large, heart-shaped feature. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SRI

Pluto’s icy riches include not only methane and nitrogen but also water, which forms the planet’s bedrock. NASA poetically refers to the water ice as “the canvas on which (Pluto’s) more volatile ices paint their seasonally changing patterns”. Recent images made in infrared light shows little or no water ice in the informally named places called Sputnik Planum (the left or western region of Pluto’s “heart”) and Lowell Regio. This indicates that at least in these regions, Pluto’s bedrock remains well hidden beneath a thick blanket of other ices such as methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.

To delve more deeply into Pluto, visit the NASA’s photojournal archive, where you’ll find 130 photos (and counting!) of the dwarf planet and its satellites.

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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