NASA has released the highest resolution views of Pluto to date, as the agency's New Horizons spacecraft continues its intensive year-long data transfer. The gallery includes, for the first time, data from the spacecraft's infrared spectrometer, which has mapped the distribution of methane ice on the dwarf planet.
Previous treasures from the data download have provided us with a wealth of stunning imagery and scientific insights into the nature of Pluto. We have seen vast icy plains, mountain ranges and even proof of a hydrological cycle at work in the dwarf planet's atmosphere.
The new images add another page in our exploration of this enigmatic celestial body. One shot in particular (above) has taken the New Horizons team aback, features a landscape of aligned ridges that combine to give the surface a snakeskin-like appearance. It was captured by the spacecraft's Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) and contains a view of the Tartarus Dorsa mountains, highlighted beautifully in the shot by the terminator line.
Also included in the new release was an "extended color" view of the dwarf planet, which enhanced Pluto's natural hues with the infrared channel of the MVIC to emphasize the myriad colors saturating the surface of the unusual "not planet."
"Pluto’s surface colors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in a rainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds", states John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. "Many landforms have their own distinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological and climatological story that we have only just begun to decode."
Images from the spacecraft's narrow-angle Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) present the most detailed view of Pluto's surface to date. The color-enhanced image shown above contains a section of the Sputnik Planum basin to the right, as well as mountains and craters in the more broken region on the left. Taken shortly before New Horizons' closest approach to the dwarf planet, the image allows viewers to pick out relatively small features spanning only 270 yards (250 m).
Sputnik Planum, which has been the focal point of many of the images returned by New Horizons, is featured once more in the release. Ahigher resolution image of the plain shows that its apparently smooth surface is in fact marked with pits and ridges, at odds with the seemingly pristine image presented from afar. The team have mooted that the terrain may be the result of sublimation similar to the process taking place on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
For the first time, New Horizons has included data from its infrared spectrometer. Readings returned from the spectrometer show highly contrasting levels of methane ice distribution across the surface of Pluto. The ice appears to have settled heavily in the Sputnik Planum region while almost completely avoiding other duller regions. NASA scientists are unsure whether the ice settled as a result of the brightness of the terrain, or whether the condensation from the ice is itself the reason for the brightness.
"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," Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission. "I wish Pluto’s discoverer Clyde Tombaugh had lived to see this day."