Pluto has “Sand Dunes”, but Instead of Sand, it’s Grains of Frozen Methane

In July of 2015, the New Horizons mission made history when it conducted the first flyby in history of Pluto. In the course of conducting its flyby, the probe gathered volumes of data about Pluto’s surface, composition, atmosphere and system of moons. It also provided breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, mountain chains, and it’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.

These strange features showed people for the first time how radically different the surface of Pluto is from Earth and the other planets of the inner Solar System. But strangely, they also showcased how this distant world is also quite similar to Earth. For instance, in a new study, a team of researchers working on the images from the New Horizons mission noticed “dunes” on the surface of Pluto that resemble sand dunes here on Earth.

The study, titled “Dunes on Pluto“, was recently published in the journal Science. The study was led by Matthew Telfer, a Lecturer in Physical Geography from the University of Plymouth, with significant contributions provided by Eric J. R. Parteli and Jani Radebaugh – geoscientists from the University of Cologne, and Brigham Young University, respectively.

The fine smudges on Sputnik Planum have been identified as transverse dunes because of the way they run perpendicular to the dark “wind streaks”. Credit: NASA/JPL/New Horizons

They were joined by members from the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute, NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Lowell Observatory, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), and multiple universities.

On Earth, dunes are formed by wind-blown sand that create repeated ridges in the desert or along beaches. Similar patterns have been observed along river beds and alluvial plains, where water deposits sediment over time. In all cases, dune-like formations are the result of solid particles being transported by a moving medium (i.e. air or water). Beyond Earth, such patterns have been observed on Mars, Titan, and even on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

However, when consulting images from New Horizons probe, Telfer and his colleagues noted similar formations in the Sputnik Planitia region on Pluto. This region, which constitutes the western lobe of the heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio, is essentially a massive ice-covered basin. Already, researchers have noted that the surface appears to consist of irregular polygons bordered by troughs, which appear to be indications of convection cells.

As Dr. Telfer told Universe Today via email:

“We first saw some features looked kind of dune-like within the first few days, but as time passed, and new images came in, most of these seemed less and less convincing. But one area became more and more convincing with every pass. This is what we’re reporting on.”

Another interesting feature is the dark streams that are a few kilometers long and are all aligned in the same direction. But equally interesting were the features that Telfer and his team noticed, which looked like dunes that ran perpendicular to the wind streaks. This indicated that they were transverse dunes, the kinds that pile up due to prolonged wind activity in the desert.

New Horizon images showing the patterns on Pluto’s surface that were hypothesized to be dunes. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

To determine if this was a plausible hypothesis, the researchers constructed models that took into account what kind of particles would make up these dunes. They concluded that either methane or nitrogen ice would be able to form sand-sized grains that could be transported by typical winds. They then modeled the physics of Pluto’s winds, which would be strongest coming down the slopes of the mountains that border Sputnik Planum.

However, they also determined that Pluto’s winds would not be strong enough to push the particles around on their own. This is where sublimation played a key role, where surface ice goes from a solid phase directly to a gas when warmed by sunlight. This sublimation would provide the upward force necessary to lift the particles, at which point they would be caught by Pluto’s winds and blown around.

As Dr. Telfer explained, this conclusion was made possible thanks to the immense amount of support his team got, much of which came from the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Science Theme Team:

“Once we’d done the spatial analysis that made us really sure that these features made sense as dunes, we had the great opportunity to hook up with Eric Parteli at Cologne; he showed us through his modelling that the dunes should form, as long as the grains become airborne in the first place. The NASA New Horizons team really helped here, as they pointed out that mixed nitrogen/methane ices would preferentially fling methane ice grains upwards as the ices sublimated.”

Comparison of dune features on Pluto with those on Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In addition to showing that Pluto, one of the most distant objects in the Solar System, has a few things in common with Earth, this study has also shown just how active Pluto’s surface is. “It shows us that not only is Pluto’s surface affecting its atmosphere, the converse is also true,” said Dr. Telfer. “We have a really dynamic world’s surface, so far out in the solar system.

On top of that, understanding how dunes can form under Pluto’s conditions will help scientists to interpret similar features found elsewhere in the Solar System. For example, NASA is planning on sending a mission to Titan in the coming decade to study its many interesting surface features, which include its dune formations. And many more missions are being sent to explore the Red Planet before a crewed mission takes place in the 2030s.

Knowing how such formations were created are key to understanding the dynamics of the planet, which will help answer some of the deeper questions about what is taking place on the surface.

Further Reading: ArsTechnica, Science

More than 100 km of Liquid Water Beneath Pluto’s Surface

What lies beneath Pluto’s icy heart? New research indicates there could be a salty “Dead Sea”-like ocean more than 100 kilometers thick.

“Thermal models of Pluto’s interior and tectonic evidence found on the surface suggest that an ocean may exist, but it’s not easy to infer its size or anything else about it,” said Brandon Johnson from Brown University. “We’ve been able to put some constraints on its thickness and get some clues about composition.”

Research by Johnson and his team focused Pluto’s “heart” – a region informally called Sputnik Planum, which was photographed by the New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby of Pluto in July of 2015.

New Horizons’ Principal Investigator Alan Stern called Sputnik Planum “one of the most amazing geological discoveries in 50-plus years of planetary exploration,” and previous research showed the region appears to be constantly renewed by current-day ice convection.

Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto's icy surface in Sputnik Planum is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto’s icy surface in Sputnik Planum is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The heart is a 900 km wide basin — bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined — and at least the western half of it appears to have been formed by an impact, likely by an object 200 kilometers across or larger.

Johnson and colleagues Timothy Bowling of the University of Chicago and Alexander Trowbridge and Andrew Freed from Purdue University modeled the impact dynamics that created a massive crater on Pluto’s surface and also looked at the dynamics between Pluto and its moon Charon.

The two are tidally locked with each other, meaning they always show each other the same face as they rotate. Sputnik Planum sits directly on the tidal axis linking the two worlds. That position suggests that the basin has what’s called a positive mass anomaly — it has more mass than average for Pluto’s icy crust. As Charon’s gravity pulls on Pluto, it would pull proportionally more on areas of higher mass, which would tilt the planet until Sputnik Planum became aligned with the tidal axis.

So instead of being a hole in the ground, the crater actually has been filled back in. Part of it has been filled in by the convecting nitrogen ice. While that ice layer adds some mass to the basin, it isn’t thick enough on its own to make Sputnik Planum have positive mass.

The Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum on Pluto. Great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.
The Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum on Pluto. Great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

The rest of that mass, Johnson said, may be generated by a liquid lurking beneath the surface.

Johnson and his team explained it like this:

Like a bowling ball dropped on a trampoline, a large impact creates a dent on a planet’s surface, followed by a rebound. That rebound pulls material upward from deep in the planet’s interior. If that upwelled material is denser than what was blasted away by the impact, the crater ends up with the same mass as it had before the impact happened. This is a phenomenon geologists refer to as isostatic compensation.

Water is denser than ice. So if there were a layer of liquid water beneath Pluto’s ice shell, it may have welled up following the Sputnik Planum impact, evening out the crater’s mass. If the basin started out with neutral mass, then the nitrogen layer deposited later would be enough to create a positive mass anomaly.

“This scenario requires a liquid ocean,” Johnson said. “We wanted to run computer models of the impact to see if this is something that would actually happen. What we found is that the production of a positive mass anomaly is actually quite sensitive to how thick the ocean layer is. It’s also sensitive to how salty the ocean is, because the salt content affects the density of the water.”

The models simulated the impact of an object large enough to create a basin of Sputnik Planum’s size hitting Pluto at a speed expected for that part in the solar system. The simulation assumed various thicknesses of the water layer beneath the crust, from no water at all to a layer 200 kilometers thick.

The scenario that best reconstructed Sputnik Planum’s observed size depth, while also producing a crater with compensated mass, was one in which Pluto has an ocean layer more than 100 kilometers thick, with a salinity of around 30 percent.

“What this tells us is that if Sputnik Planum is indeed a positive mass anomaly —and it appears as though it is — this ocean layer of at least 100 kilometers has to be there,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty amazing to me that you have this body so far out in the solar system that still may have liquid water.”

Johnson he and other researchers will continue study the data sent back by New Horizons to get a clearer picture Pluto’s intriguing interior and possible ocean.

Further reading: Brown University, New Horions/APL

Scientists Assemble Fresh Global Map of Pluto Comprising Sharpest Flyby Images

NASA’s New Horizons mission science team has produced this updated panchromatic (black-and-white) global map of Pluto. The map includes all resolved images of Pluto’s surface acquired at pixel resolutions ranging from 18 miles (30 kilometers) on the Charon-facing hemisphere (left and right edges of the map) to 770 feet (235 meters) on the hemisphere facing New Horizons during the closest approach on July 14, 2015 (map center).  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
NASA’s New Horizons mission science team has produced this updated panchromatic (black-and-white) global map of Pluto. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

The science team leading NASA’s New Horizons mission that unveiled the true nature of Pluto’s long hidden looks during the history making maiden close encounter last July, have published a fresh global map that offers the sharpest and most spectacular glimpse yet of the mysterious, icy world.

The newly updated global Pluto map is comprised of all the highest resolution images transmitted back to Earth thus far and provides the best perspective to date.

Click on the lead image above to enjoy Pluto revealed at its finest thus far. Click on this link to view the highest resolution version.

Prior to the our first ever flyby of the Pluto planetary system barely 8 months ago, the planet was nothing more than a fuzzy blob with very little in the way of identifiable surface features – even in the most powerful telescopic views lovingly obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

Dead center in the new map is the mesmerizing heart shaped region informally known as Tombaugh Regio, unveiled in all its glory and dominating the diminutive world.

The panchromatic (black-and-white) global map of Pluto published by the team includes the latest images received as of less than one week ago on April 25.

The images were captured by New Horizons’ high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI).

The science team is working on assembling an updated color map.

During its closest approach at approximately 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) on July 14, 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft swoop to within about 12,500 kilometers (nearly 7,750 miles) of Pluto’s surface and about 17,900 miles (28,800 kilometers) from Charon, the largest moon.

The map includes all resolved images of Pluto’s surface acquired in the final week of the approach period ahead of the flyby starting on July 7, and continuing through to the day of closest approach on July 14, 2015 – and transmitted back so far.

The pixel resolutions are easily seen to vary widely across the map as you scan the global map from left to right – depending on which Plutonian hemisphere was closest to the spacecraft during the period of close flyby.
They range from the highest resolution of 770 feet (235 meters), at center, to 18 miles (30 kilometers) at the far left and right edges.

The Charon-facing hemisphere (left and right edges of the map) had a pixel resolution of 18 miles (30 kilometers).

“This non-encounter hemisphere was seen from much greater range and is, therefore, in far less detail,” noted the team.

However the hemisphere facing New Horizons during the spacecraft’s closest approach on July 14, 2015 (map center) had a far higher pixel resolution reaching to 770 feet (235 meters).

Coincidentally and fortuitously the spectacularly diverse terrain of Tombaugh Regio and the Sputnik Planum area of the hearts left ventricle with ice flows and volcanoes, mountains and river channels was in the region facing the camera and sports the highest resolution imagery.

See below a newly released shaded relief map of Sputnik Planum.

This new shaded relief view of the region surrounding the left side of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature – informally named Sputnik Planum – shows that the vast expanse of the icy surface is on average 2 miles (3 kilometers) lower than the surrounding terrain.  Angular blocks of water ice are “floating” in the bright deposits of softer, denser solid nitrogen.   Credits:  NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This new shaded relief view of the region surrounding the left side of Pluto’s heart-shaped feature – informally named Sputnik Planum – shows that the vast expanse of the icy surface is on average 2 miles (3 kilometers) lower than the surrounding terrain. Angular blocks of water ice are “floating” in the bright deposits of softer, denser solid nitrogen. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

“Sputnik Planum – shows that the vast expanse of the icy surface is on average 2 miles (3 kilometers) lower than the surrounding terrain. Angular blocks of water ice along the western edge of Sputnik Planum can be seen “floating” in the bright deposits of softer, denser solid nitrogen,” according to the team.

Even more stunning images and groundbreaking data will continue streaming back from New Horizons until early fall, across over 3 billion miles of interplanetary space.

Thus the global map of Pluto will be periodically updated.

Its taking over a year to receive the full complement of some 50 gigabits of data due to the limited bandwidth available from the transmitter on the piano-shaped probe as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Pluto is the last planet in our solar system to be visited in the initial reconnaissance of planets by spacecraft from Earth since the dawn of the Space Age.

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/kenkremer.com
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/kenkremer.com

New Horizons remains on target to fly by a second Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on Jan. 1, 2019 – tentatively 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

“X” Marks the Spot of Convective Churning on Hot Pluto

“X” marks the spot that’s illustrative of “convective churning” resulting from subsurface planetary heating, as seen in a fascinating new super high resolution image received from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2015. Its situated at the very center of the left ventricle of Pluto’s huge “heart” – an icy flow plain that’s informally named “Sputnik Planum.”

The “X” feature – see image above – is located in an area of intersecting cells, shaped like polygons, on the plains of “Sputnik Planum” which are mostly comprised of frozen nitrogen ices.

Continue reading ““X” Marks the Spot of Convective Churning on Hot Pluto”

Possible Ice Volcanoes Discovered on Pluto

Ice Volcanoes on Pluto?
The informally named feature Wright Mons, located south of Sputnik Planum on Pluto, is an unusual feature that’s about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high. It displays a summit depression (visible in the center of the image) that’s approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across, with a distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing. New Horizons scientists believe that this mountain and another, Piccard Mons, could have been formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute[/caption]

The possible discovery of a pair of recently erupting ice volcanoes on Pluto are among the unexpected “astounding” findings just unveiled by perplexed scientists with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, barely four months after the historic first flyby of the last unexplored planet in our solar system.

“Nothing like this has been seen in the deep outer solar system,” said Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader from NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, as the results so far were announced at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) this week in National Harbor, Maryland.

“The Pluto system is baffling us,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, at a news media briefing on Nov. 9.

Two large mountainous features tens of miles across and several miles high, have been potentially identified by the team as volcanoes.

Scientists using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps have discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could possibly be ice volcanoes. The color is shown to depict changes in elevation, with blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation; green terrains are at intermediate heights.  Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Scientists using New Horizons images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D topographic maps have discovered that two of Pluto’s mountains, informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, could possibly be ice volcanoes. The color is shown to depict changes in elevation, with blue indicating lower terrain and brown showing higher elevation; green terrains are at intermediate heights. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

They were found in terrain located south of Sputnik Planum – a vast area of smooth icy plains located within Pluto’s huge heart shaped region informally known as Tombaugh Regio. It may have formed very recently resulting from geologic activity within the past 10 million years.

The possible ice volcanoes, or cryovolcanoes, were found at two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains and identified from images taken by New Horizons as it became Earth’s first emissary to hurtle past the small planet on July 14, 2015.

“All of our flyby plans succeeded,” Stern stated at the briefing.

“All of the data sets are spectacular.

Scientists created 3-D topographic maps from the probes images and discovered the possible ice volcanoes – informally named Wright Mons and Piccard Mons.

Wright Mons, pictured above, is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) wide and 13,000 feet (4 kilometers) high.

Both mountains appear to show summit depressions “with a large hole” visible in the center, similar to volcanoes on Earth. Scientists speculate “they may have formed by the ‘cryovolcanic’ eruption of ices from beneath Pluto’s surface.”

The erupting Plutonian ices might be composed of a melted slurry of water ice, nitrogen, ammonia and methane.

The depression inside Wright Mons is approximately 35 miles (56 kilometers) across and exhibits a “distinctive hummocky texture on its sides. The rim of the summit depression also shows concentric fracturing.”

“These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing—a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA Ames, in a statement.

The team is quick to caution that the “interpretation of these features as volcanoes is tentative” and requires much more analysis.

“If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have travelled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don’t yet know.”

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.  Right side inset from New Horizons team focuses on Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature.  Annotated with informal place names.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
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. Right side inset from New Horizons team focuses on Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature. Annotated with informal place names. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

More than 50 papers about the Pluto system are being presented at the AAS meeting this week.

So far New Horizon has transmitted back only about 20 percent of the data gathered, according to mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern.

“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system,” said Stern.

“Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”

Locations of more than 1,000 craters mapped on Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons mission indicate a wide range of surface ages, which likely means that Pluto has been geologically active throughout its history.  Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Locations of more than 1,000 craters mapped on Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons mission indicate a wide range of surface ages, which likely means that Pluto has been geologically active throughout its history. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap for a long time to come.

With 20 percent of the data now returned and more streaming back every day, the team is excited to debate what is all means.

“This is when the debates begin,” said Curt Niebur, New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters, at the missions Nov 9 media briefing. “This is when the heated discussions begin. This is when the entire science community starts staying up throughout the night.”

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

Ken Kremer

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon - shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. 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 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon – shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. 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 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Astonishing ‘Snakeskin’ Textured Mountains Discovered on Pluto

The more we learn about Pluto, the weirder and weirder it gets.

The newest batch of high resolution Plutonian images has yielded “astonishing” discoveries of previously unseen ‘snakeskin’ textured mountains, that are simultaneously “dazzling and mystifying” scientists analyzing the latest data just returned from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

New Horizons swooped past the Pluto planetary system during mankind’s history making first encounter on July 14, 2015 at a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).

The piano shaped probe gathered about 50 gigabits of data as it hurtled past Pluto, its largest moon Charon and four smaller moons.

Data from that priceless, once in a lifetime flyby is now trickling back to Earth.

The ‘snakeskin’ feature on Pluto’s utterly bizarre surface was unveiled to “astonished” scientists scrutinizing the latest data dump received over the past week, that included images taken by the Ralph instruments Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC).

Features as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers) are resolved in detail.

The MVIC image stretches about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across the ‘snakeskin’ like landscape composed of rounded and bizarrely textured mountains that are informally named Tartarus Dorsa and that borders the bodies day-night terminator.

It shows intricate patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between that are puzzling researchers.

“It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,” said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis.

“It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out; maybe it’s some combination of internal tectonic forces and ice sublimation driven by Pluto’s faint sunlight.”

The Ralph/MVIC image is actually a composite of blue, red and infrared images.

The image of Tartarus Dorsa reveals a “multitude of previously unseen topographic and compositional details. It captures a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that has astonished New Horizons team members,” say officials.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).  The viewer is encouraged to zoom in on the image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features.   Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. The image combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). Pluto’s surface sports a remarkable range of subtle colors, enhanced in this view to a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a complex geological and climatological story that scientists have only just begun to decode. The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). The viewer is encouraged to zoom in on the image on a larger screen to fully appreciate the complexity of Pluto’s surface features. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Another wider angle global view of Pluto downlinked on Sept. 19 shows a new “extended color” view of Pluto with an the extraordinarily rich color palette of the planet.

“We used MVIC’s infrared channel to extend our spectral view of Pluto,” said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.

“Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds. Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode.”

The image resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Beyond MVIC, additional new images taken by New Horizons’ narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) during the July 14 were downlinked on Sept. 20.

They focus on the Sputnik Planum ice plains on the left side of the famous heart shaped Tombaugh Regio feature and are the highest resolution yet – as seen below. The team added color based on the global MVIC map shown above.

High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from a larger, high-resolution mosaic, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from a larger, high-resolution mosaic, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Barely 5 or 6 percent of the 50 gigabits of data captured by New Horizons has been received by ground stations back on Earth.

“With these just-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in the study of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution in both color and composition,” added New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of SwRI.

“I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day.”

Stern says it will take about a year for all the data to get back. Thus bountiful new discoveries are on tap.

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 mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
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 mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

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

Ken Kremer

Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto's horizon - shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. 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 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon – shown in this colorized rendition. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. 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 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. Colorized/Annotated: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

See Pluto’s Icy Flow Plains and Mountains Revealed in Highest Resolution Flyover Mosaic and Movie

Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below. This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context. Annotated with place names. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Unannotated version below[/caption]

Until barely two weeks ago, Pluto tantalized humanity for eight decades with mysteries we could only imagine – seen as just a point of light or fuzzy blob in the world’s most powerful telescopes.

Now the last explored planetary system in our solar system is being revealed for the first time in history to human eyes, piece by piece, in the form of the highest resolution flyover mosaics and movies of the alien surface ever available, now and for decades to come.

And it’s all thanks to the brilliant efforts of the scientists and engineers leading NASA’s New Horizons mission – which culminated in the first ever close encounter with Pluto and its five moons by a spacecraft from Earth on July 14, 2015.

With the resoundingly successful close flyby completed and the piano shaped New Horizons probe now looking in the rear view mirror, the scientific booty is raining down on receivers back on Earth. However it will take about 16 months to send all the flyby science data back to Earth due to limited bandwidth.

The first series of seven breathtaking high resolution surface images focusing on Pluto’s bright heart-shaped region, informally named ‘Tombaugh Regio’, has been stitched together into our new and wider view mosaic, shown above and below, by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Furthermore the New Horizons team has created a spectacular simulated flyover movie centered in the heart of Pluto’s huge ‘Heart’ at ‘Tombaugh Regio’, showing the stunning views including the incredibly recent ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ and monumental icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and newly discovered ‘Hillary Montes.’

The mosaic and movie are compiled from the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during the history making closest approach flyby.

The LORRI images were taken from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet about 1.5 hours prior to the closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14. The images easily resolve structures smaller than a mile across.

New Horizon’s unveiled Pluto as a surprising vibrant and geologically active “icy world of wonders” as it barreled past the Pluto-Charon double planet system on July 14 at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph) and collected unprecedented high resolution imagery and spectral measurements of the utterly alien worlds.

This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits. The large crater highlighted in the image is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide, approximately the size of the greater Washington, DC area.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits. The large crater highlighted in the image is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide, approximately the size of the greater Washington, DC area. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The newly-discovered mountain range has been informally named Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains) for Sir Edmund Hillary, who first summited Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953. They rise about one mile (1.6 kilometers) above the surrounding plains, similar to the height of the Appalachian Mountains in the United States.

They are located nearby and somewhat north of another mountain range discovered first and named Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains).

“For many years, we referred to Pluto as the Everest of planetary exploration,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado.

“It’s fitting that the two climbers who first summited Earth’s highest mountain, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, now have their names on this new Everest.”

Watch this flyover above Pluto’s icy plains at Sputnik Planum and Hillary Montes:

Video caption: This simulated flyover of two regions on Pluto, northwestern Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain) and Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains), was created from New Horizons close-approach images. Sputnik Planum has been informally named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, launched in 1957. Hillary Montes have been informally named for Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first two humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. The images were acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The LORRI images show “extensive evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.”

Sputnik Planum is a Texas-sized plain, which lies on the western, left half of Pluto’s bilobed and bright heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio.

The new imagery and spectral evidence from the Ralph instrument appears to show the flow of nitrogen ices in geologically recent times across a vast region. They appear to flow similar to glaciers on Earth. There are also carbon monoxide and methane ices mixed in with the water ices.

“At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.”

“We see the flow of viscous ice that looks like glacial flow.”

Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below.  This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.  Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Highest resolution mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto focusing on ice flows and plains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ at top and icy mountain ranges of ‘Hillary Montes’ and ‘Norgay Montes’ below. This new mosaic combines the seven highest resolution images captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of mosaic and huge heart-shaped region in context. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, July 26, New Horizons is 12 days past the Pluto flyby and already over 15 million kilometers beyond Pluto and continuing its journey into the Kuiper Belt, the third realm of worlds in our solar system.

New Horizons discovered that Pluto is the largest known body beyond Neptune – and thus reigns as the “King of the Kuiper Belt!”

The science team plans to target New Horizons to fly by another smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as soon as 2018.

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

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

Ken Kremer

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers), twice the resolution of the single-image view taken on July 13.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers), twice the resolution of the single-image view taken on July 13. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Flowing Ice, Exotic Mountains and Backlit Haze Highlight Pluto as Never Seen Before

Spectacular imagery of huge regions of flowing ice, monumental mountain ranges and a breathtakingly backlit atmospheric haze showing Pluto as we’ve never seen it before, were among the newest discoveries announced today, July 24, by scientists leading NASA’s New Horizons mission which sped past the planet for humanity’s first ever up-close encounter only last week.

New Horizon’s revealed Pluto be an unexpectedly vibrant “icy world of wonders” as it barreled by the Pluto-Charon double planet system last Tuesday, July 14, at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph).

The scientists publicly released a series of stunning new images and science discoveries at Pluto that exceeded all pre-flyby expectations.

“The images of Pluto are spectacular,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, at today’s media briefing.

“We knew that a mission to Pluto would bring some surprises, and now — 10 days after closest approach — we can say that our expectation has been more than surpassed. With flowing ices, exotic surface chemistry, mountain ranges, and vast haze, Pluto is showing a diversity of planetary geology that is truly thrilling.”

New Horizons discovers flowing ices in Pluto’s heart-shaped feature. In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons discovers flowing ices in Pluto’s heart-shaped feature. In the northern region of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), swirl-shaped patterns of light and dark suggest that a surface layer of exotic ices has flowed around obstacles and into depressions, much like glaciers on Earth. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Over 50 gigabits of data were collected during the encounter and flyby periods of the highest scientific activity in the most critical hours before and after the spacecrafts closest approach to Pluto, its largest moon Charon and its quartet of smaller moons.

Data from the flyby is now raining back to Earth, but slowly due to limited bandwidth of an average “downlink” of only about 2 kilobits per second via its two transmitters.

“So far we’ve seen only about 5% of the encounter data,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

At that pace it will take about 16 months to send all the flyby science data back to Earth.

Among the top highlights is the first view ever taken from the back side of Pluto, a backlit view that humans have never seen before.

It shows a global portrait of the planets extended atmosphere and was captured when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto. It shows structures as small as 12 miles across.

“The silhouette of Pluto taken after the flyby and show a remarkable haze of light representing the hazy worlds extended atmosphere,” Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said at the media briefing.

“The image is the equivalent of the Apollo astronauts Earth-rise images.”

“It’s the first image of Pluto’s atmosphere!” said Michael Summers, New Horizons co-investigator at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, at the briefing.

“We’ve known about the atmosphere for over 25 years,” and now we can see it. There are haze layers and it shows structure and weather. There are two distinct layers of haze. One at about 30 miles (50 kilometers) and another at about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the surface.”

“The haze extend out about 100 miles! Which is five times more than expected.”

This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits. The large crater highlighted in the image is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide, approximately the size of the greater Washington, DC area.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
This annotated image of the southern region of Sputnik Planum illustrates its complexity, including the polygonal shapes of Pluto’s icy plains, its two mountain ranges, and a region where it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits. The large crater highlighted in the image is about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide, approximately the size of the greater Washington, DC area. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The image was taken by New Horizons’ high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) while looking back at Pluto, barely seven hours after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, and gives significant clues about the atmosphere’s dynamics and interaction with the surface. It captures sunlight streaming through the atmosphere.

“The hazes detected in this image are a key element in creating the complex hydrocarbon compounds that give Pluto’s surface its reddish hue.”

Methane (CH4) in the upper atmosphere break down by interaction of UV radiation and forms ethylene and acetylene which leads to more complex hydrocarbons known as tholins – which the team says is responsible for Pluto’s remarkable reddish hue.

The team also released new LORRI images showing “extensive evidence of exotic ices flowing across Pluto’s surface and revealing signs of recent geologic activity, something scientists hoped to find but didn’t expect.”

The images focuses on Sputnik Planum, a Texas-sized plain, which lies on the western, left half of Pluto’s bilobed and bright heart-shaped feature, known as Tombaugh Regio.

Pluto and Charon are shown in a composite of natural-color images from New Horizons. Images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to produce these views, which portray Pluto and Charon as an observer riding on the spacecraft would see them. The images were acquired on July 13 and 14, 2015.   Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
Pluto and Charon are shown in a composite of natural-color images from New Horizons. Images from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to produce these views, which portray Pluto and Charon as an observer riding on the spacecraft would see them. The images were acquired on July 13 and 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

New imagery and spectral evidence from the Ralph instrument was presented that appears to show the flow of nitrogen ices in geologically recent times across a vast region. They appear to flow similar to glaciers on Earth. There are also carbon monoxide and methane ices mixed in with the water ices.

“We’ve only seen surfaces like this on active worlds like Earth and Mars,” said mission co-investigator John Spencer of SwRI. “I’m really smiling.”

“At Pluto’s temperatures of minus-390 degrees Fahrenheit, these ices can flow like a glacier,” said Bill McKinnon, deputy leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In the southernmost region of the heart, adjacent to the dark equatorial region, it appears that ancient, heavily-cratered terrain has been invaded by much newer icy deposits.”

“We see the flow of viscous ice that looks like glacial flow.”

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers), twice the resolution of the single-image view taken on July 13.  Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers), twice the resolution of the single-image view taken on July 13. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

If the spacecraft remains healthy as expected, the science team plans to target New Horizons to fly by another smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as soon as 2018.

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

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

Ken Kremer

Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015, draped over a wider, lower resolution view of Tombaugh Regio.   Inset at left shows possible wind streaks.  Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context.  Annotated with place names.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015, draped over a wider, lower resolution view of Tombaugh Regio. Inset at left shows possible wind streaks. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context. Annotated with place names. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Pluto’s Heart of the Heart Swathed in Newly Discovered Icy Mountains and Vast Plains

APPLIED PHYSICS LABORATORY, LAUREL, MD – The highest resolution images ever taken of Pluto by humanity’s first spacecraft ever to visit the last planet in our solar system revealed unanticipated new discoveries of ice mountains as tall as the Rockies and vast craterless plains spanning hundreds of miles (kilometers) across – are now shown in our newly created context mosaic (featured above and below) of the heart-shaped ‘Tombaugh Regio’ area that dominates the alien planet’s surface.

These stunning and astoundingly young features only now unveiled on Pluto’s surface were created in very recent times, geologically speaking said top scientists leading NASA’s resounding successful New Horizons mission, at a media briefing on July 17.

This first high resolution surface mosaic was created from a newly unveiled series of black and white images centered in the Heart of Pluto’s huge ‘Heart, including the ice mountains of ‘Sputnik Planum’ and icy plains of ‘Norgay Montes.’

They were captured by New Horizons’ high resolution Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 as the probe barreled past the Pluto-Charon binary planet system only four days ago on Tuesday, July 14, at over 31,000 mph (49,600 kph).

These highest resolution LORRI images focused on the “Heart of the Heart” of Pluto have now been stitched into a mosaic by the image processing team of Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

Pluto’s bright heart-shaped region has now been informally renamed “Tombaugh Regio,’ announced John Spencer, New Horizons science team co-investigator at the post flyby media briefing on July 15.

The mosaic of Pluto’s ‘Tombaugh Regio’ is based on the initial imagery released so far as of July 17.

This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

A pair of high resolution LORRI images was aimed at areas now informally named Norgay Montes (Norgay Mountains) and Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain).

Norgay Montes is informally named for Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two humans to reach the summit of Mount Everest, along with Sir Edmund Hillary. Sputnik Planum is informally named for Earth’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957.

The two LORRI images are draped over a wider, lower resolution view of Tombaugh Regio – in annotated and unannotated versions. This is highest resolution currently available.

To the left of the mosaic are two small inserts showing possible “wind streaks” say the researchers.

To the right of the mosaic is a global view of Pluto showing the location of Tombaugh Regio and also outlined to show the precise location of the high resolution LORRI mosaic.

Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.   Inset at left shows possible wind streaks.  Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context.  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hi Res mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio’ shows the heart-shaped region on Pluto and focuses on icy mountain ranges of ‘Norgay Montes’ and ice plains of ‘Sputnik Planum.’ The new mosaic combines highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during history making closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Inset at left shows possible wind streaks. Inset at right shows global view of Pluto with location of huge heart-shaped region in context. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI/ Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The LORRI images were taken from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface of the planet about 1.5 hours prior to the closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14. The images easily resolve structures smaller than a mile across.

The frozen region of Norgay Montes is situated north of Pluto’s icy mountain range at Sputnik Planum.

“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”

“The landscape is astoundingly amazing. There are a few ancient impact craters on Pluto. But other areas like “Tombaugh Regio” show no craters. The landform change processes are occurring into current geologic times.”

“There are no impact craters in a frozen area north of Pluto’s icy mountains we are now informally calling ‘Sputnik Planum’ after Earth’s first artificial satellite.”

New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise -- a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.  Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise — a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. Credits: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI

‘Sputnik Planum’ is composed of a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments. The polygonal shaped areas are roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs based on a quick look at the data.

The mountain ranges height rival those of the Rockies, says Moore.

The new LORRI close-ups show the icy mountain range has peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface, announced John Spencer, New Horizons science team co-investigator at the media briefing.

“It’s a very young surface, probably formed less than 100 million years old,’ said Spencer. “It may be active now.”

New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
New Horizons science team co-investigator John Spencer examines print of the newest Pluto image taken on July 13, 2015 after the successful Pluto flyby. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Judging from the absence of impact craters, it’s clear that Sputnik Planum couldn’t possibly be more than 100 million years old, and possibly is still being shaped to this day by geologic processes,” noted Moore. “This could be only a week old for all we know.”

During the fast flyby encounter, the New Horizons spacecraft pointed its suite of seven science instruments exclusively on all the bodies in the Pluto system, to maximize the capture of scientific data, as quickly as possible, and store it onto its two solid state digital recorders for later playback.

A major challenge for the mission is the rather slow “downlink” transmission of data back to Mission Control on Earth. Since the average “downlink” is only about 2 kilobits per second via its two transmitters, it will take about 16 months to send all the flyby data back to Earth.

Therefore the team has carefully selected just a few of the highest resolution images and other key instrument data for quick playback. The remaining flyby data will be prioritized for streaming.

“Over 50 gigabits of data were collected during the encounter and flyby periods,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, said during the July 17 media briefing.

“So far less than 1 gigabit of data has been returned.”

New Horizons 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.

If the spacecraft remains healthy as expected, the science team plans to target New Horizons to fly by another smaller Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) as soon as 2018.

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing coverage of the Pluto flyby. He was onsite reporting live on the flyby and media briefings for Universe Today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md.

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

Ken Kremer

NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Youthful Frozen Plains Cover Pluto’s Big ‘Heart’ – Spectacular New Images from New Horizons

This annotated view of a portion of Pluto’s Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), named for Earth’s first artificial satellite, shows an array of enigmatic features. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs, some of which contain darker materials. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
See 3 image mosaic below[/caption]

A vast, hundreds of miles wide craterless plain of Plutonian ice no more than 100 million years old and centered amidst Pluto’s big ‘heart’ was unveiled in spectacular new imagery taken by NASA’s resounding successful New Horizons mission, during its history making rapid transit through the Pluto-Charon binary planet system barely three days ago, on Tuesday, July 14.

The jaw dropping new imagery of young plains of water ice was publicly released today, July 17, by NASA and scientists leading the New Horizons mission during a media briefing, and has already resulted in ground breaking new scientific discoveries at the last planet in our solar system to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

“We have now visited every planet in our solar system with American spacecraft,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “These findings are already causing us to rethink the dynamics of interior geologic processes.”

New data and dazzling imagery are now from streaming back some 3 billion miles across interplanetary space to mission control on Earth and researchers eagerly awaiting the fruits of more than two decades of hard labor to get to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I can’t wait for the new discoveries!” exclaimed Bolden at today’s media briefing.

“Over 50 gigabits of data were collected during the encounter and flyby periods,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, said during the media briefing.

“So far less than 1 gigabit of data has been returned.”

It will take some 16 months for all the Pluto flyby data to be transmitted back to Earth.

And the team has not been disappointed because the results so far shows Pluto to possess tremendously varied terrain that “far exceed our expectations.”

Video Caption: In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” – lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Two new high resolution images captured by the probes Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 were released today and taken from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible in the images – shown above and below.

They were snapped from frozen region lying north of Pluto’s icy mountains, in the center-left of the heart feature, informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region) after Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

“This terrain is not easy to explain,” said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

“The discovery of vast, craterless, very young plains on Pluto exceeds all pre-flyby expectations.”

“The landscape is astounding. There are a few ancient impact craters on Pluto. But other areas like “Tombaugh Regio” show no craters. The landform change processes are occurring into current geologic times.”

“There are no impact craters in a frozen area north of Pluto’s icy mountains we are now informally calling ‘Sputnik Planum’ after Earth’s first artificial satellite.”

‘Sputnik Planum’ is composed of a broken surface of irregularly-shaped segments. The polygonal shaped areas are roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) across, bordered by what appear to be shallow troughs based on a quick look at the data.

Notably, some of the clumps are filled with mysterious darker material. Hills are also visible in some areas, which may have been pushed up. Etched areas on the surface may have been formed by sublimation process where the water ice turns directly from the solid to the gas phase due to the extremely negligible atmosphere pressure.

In some places there are also streaks that may have formed from windblown processes and pitted areas.

Three image mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio,’ Pluto’s heart-shaped region,  combining highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015.   Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.  Additional processing Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Three image mosaic of ‘Tombaugh Regio,’ Pluto’s heart-shaped region, combining highest resolution imagery captured by NASA’s New Horizons LORRI imager during closest approach flyby on July 14, 2015. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI. Additional processing Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

“It’s just pure coincidence that we got the highest resolution data at Sputnik Planum which is of the most interest scientifically,” Moore noted.

Moore indicated that the team is working on a pair of theories as to how these polygonal segments were formed.

“The irregular shapes may be the result of the contraction of surface materials, similar to what happens when mud dries. Alternatively, they may be a product of convection, similar to wax rising in a lava lamp. On Pluto, convection would occur within a surface layer of frozen carbon monoxide, methane and nitrogen, driven by the scant warmth of Pluto’s interior,” Moore explained.

Pluto’s polygons look remarkably similar to the Martian polygons upon which NASA’s Phoenix lander touched down on in 2008 and dug into. Perhaps they were formed by similar mechanisms or difference ones, contraction or convection, Moore told me during the briefing.

As of yesterday, New Horizons spacecraft completed and exited the Pluto encounter phase, said Stern. “We are now collecting departure science.”

New Horizons is already over 3 million miles beyond Pluto and heading to its next yet to be determined target in the Kuiper Belt.

“With the flyby in the rearview mirror, a decade-long journey to Pluto is over –but, the science payoff is only beginning,” said Jim Green, director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Data from New Horizons will continue to fuel discovery for years to come.”

Counting down to less than 3 minutes from New Horizons closest approach to Pluto, Jim Green, NASA Planetary Science Division Director, addresses the team, guests and media on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Counting down to less than 3 minutes from New Horizons closest approach to Pluto, Jim Green, NASA Planetary Science Division Director, addresses the team, guests and media on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Pluto Explored at Last. The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015.   New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) - at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pluto Explored at Last
The New Horizons mission team celebrates successful flyby of Pluto in the moments after closest approach at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015. New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO., left, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Director Ralph Semmel, center, and New Horizons Co-Investigator Will Grundy Lowell Observatory hold an enlarged print of an U.S. stamp with their suggested update after Pluto became the final planet in our solar system to be explored by an American space probe (crossing out the words ‘not yet’) – at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” - lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI
In the center left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” – lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

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