NASA has released more breathtaking images from the New Horizons spacecraft's Pluto encounter, showcasing the dwarf planet's surprisingly diverse geological features. The images come in the wake of the probe's high-velocity flyby, during which time the spacecraft collected vast quantities of data on one of the most enigmatic bodies in our solar system.
On September 7, the New Horizons spacecraft, which at this point is over 3 billion miles (5 billion km) from Earth, initiated an intensive data transfer of images and information that will take around a year to complete.
Considering that a signal from the probe takes roughly 4.5 hours to reach Earth, with only between one and four kilobits of data transmitted per second, NASA, and onlookers across the globe, have no choice but to be patient for New Horizons to impart its treasure trove of information.
The newly released images reveal a lot about the diverse and surprising nature of Pluto. According to a New Horizons team member, the dwarf planet is at least as geologically diverse as Mars, and the discoveries made by New Horizons are not limited to the planet's surface.
Pluto's atmospheric haze has a more densely layered structure than had previously been expected, so much so that the gas actually illuminates the dark side of the dwarf planet. Members of the New Horizons science team believe that this effect may even have presented unexpected imaging opportunities for the probe.
The images also appear to highlight vast dunes and nitrogen flows emanating from mountainous regions that may themselves be vast chunks of ice water floating on huge deposits of frozen nitrogen. Furthermore, as on Mars, the images present evidence of valley networks apparently carved by an unknown flowing material.
"Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we’ve seen in the solar system," says New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the South West Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top – but that’s what is actually there."
After flying by on July 14, the New Horizons spacecraft is already 43 million miles (69 million km) beyond Pluto, yet the mission just keeps giving. Friday will see the release of more images of the dwarf planet's moons, and more surprises are sure to follow.