A new image release from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has provided more intriguing views of Pluto, including a stunning shot of the dwarf planet's tenuous atmosphere. Back-lit by the Sun, the image was captured from the probe at a range of 18,000 km, a mere 15 minutes after it made its closest approach on July 14.
The images contained in the latest release were captured by the spacecraft's wide-angle Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC). The image featured above spans 780 miles (1,250 km), with back-lighting from the Sun emphasizing a variety of geological features such as a mountain range that reaches to heights of up to 3,353 m (11,000 ft) above the surface, and the vast icy plain Sputnik Planum.
"This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself," states Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains."
This composite image is dominated by Pluto's Sputnik Planum. NASA scientists believe that the brighter region to the right of the shot may be the result of a coating of nitrogen ice
The images highlights over a dozen distinct layers of haze that stretch roughly 62 miles (100 km) away from the dwarf planet's surface. The shots appear to display the hallmarks of an Earth-like hydrological cycle, that substitutes water (which is cycled in the atmosphere on Earth) for exotic ices, including nitrogen, that cover the vast plains and are subsequently redistributed via evaporation.
A further image displays surface fog which may be responsible for day-to-day weather variations on the surface of the dwarf planet.
The latest shots follow on the heels of an image release on September 10 that showcased Pluto's surprisingly complex and diverse geological characteristics. The massive data downlink from New Horizons is set to go on for roughly a year, so we can look forward to many more insights from the NASA probe.