New Horizons is still sending heaps of data back to Earth after its recent Pluto fly-by. Recent pictures recovered by the spacecraft reveal Earth-like landscapes and geological activity on Pluto, underscoring the planet’s complexity.
Other close-ups of the dwarf-planet reveal crater-covered landscapes as well as mountains surrounded by a brightly colored area that New Horizons mission leaders believe to be glacier-like structures.
These new images of Pluto may very well be the highest-resolution images that we’re going to get of Nix, Hydra, Charon and Pluto. But aside from the exceptional quality images, scientists are learning more and more about Pluto’s secrets.
One striking contrasts is the apparent geological activity that may still be underway in certain portions of Pluto’s surface compared to the “fundamentally ancient” parts of the dwarf planet. It seems that Pluto’s “heart” is made up of methane, carbon monoxide and frozen nitrogen fuelling ever-shifting glaciers.
This bright area has been informally dubbed “Tombaugh Regio” and features two lobes, an eastern and a western one, who include significantly different ice deposits. The ice deposits located in Pluto’s western lobe are much thicker than the ones located eastward or at the region’s southern tip.
Geology team deputy leader, Bill McKinnon, notes that this scientific wonderland still holds much to be discovered. For instance, despite the whopping 390 degrees below zero temperatures on Pluto’s surface, the ice doesn’t behave as water ice would. Carbon monoxide, nitrogen and methane ice is softer and more malleable, despite the low temperatures, so they flow.
But more importantly, it seems that the planet’s atmosphere is experiencing dramatic shifts as Pluto is moving along its elliptical orbit, farther and farther away from the sun. Observations made with the help of the New Horizons spacecraft suggest that Pluto’s atmosphere is disappearing at a faster pace than what scientists had first predicted. What’s more, the air pressure on the planet’s surface is also decreasing dramatically.
But New Horizon’s did make a remarkable find as it was drifting away from Pluto: it observed hints of weather features in Pluto’s atmosphere.
Alan Stern, New Horizons mission lead scientists, revealed that there is much that we’ve understood about this far away planet. Luckily, the spacecraft has only managed to send back approximately 4-5% of the data and observations that it, with the help of the seven instruments aboard, has made.
Scientists will have to exercise patience during the period to come, when New Horizons will beam back the remaining data, mostly engineering information, back to Earth.
Photo credits: The Telegraph
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