New Horizons, a spacecraft that flew by Pluto in July 2015, continues to stream photos back to Earth from billions of miles away — and each set is more incredible than the last.
The following images, released by NASA on Thursday, made our skin crawl.
Fifteen minutes after New Horizons made its closest approach to the icy dwarf planet, it turned around to capture this panorama. The photo spans 780 miles across and captures Pluto’s rugged, icy landscape as the sun begins to set.
“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” Alan Stern, lead scientist of the New Horizons mission at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a NASA press release. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”
In a close-up of the image, below, dozens of layers of haze hover about 60 miles above the surface. These nitrogen-infused layers hint that Pluto’s weather changes on a day-to-day basis and in a similar fashion to Earth, according to Will Grundy, a New Horizons scientist at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
The photo suggests that Pluto has an Earth-like hydrological cycle, in which water evaporates from the surface into the atmosphere, then falls back down as precipitation. Instead of water, though, the New Horizons team thinks it’s nitrogen at work and depositing soft, exotic ices across the dwarf planet.
Expansive areas to the right of Pluto’s “heart” region — informally named Sputnik Planum — seem to be blanketed by nitrogen ices that evaporated from Pluto’s plains and deposited to the east.
There also seems to be glaciers sliding into the heart region (left) toward the nitrogen-covered blanketed region (right). Such features bear a resemblance to the frozen streams surrounding the ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.
According to the press release, NASA scientists did not expect to find a nitrogen-based weather cycle on the dwarf planet, let alone glaciers. “Pluto is surprisingly Earth-like in this regard,” Stern said in the press release, “and no one predicted it.”
As New Horizons continues to beam back better and better images, we can only expect more breathtaking and bewildering surprises from the mission.