Newly released images showcase Pluto's stunning geological diversity
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 NewHorizons spacecraft, which at this point is over 3 billion miles (5billion km) from Earth, initiated an intensive data transfer ofimages and information that will take around a year to complete.
Considering that asignal from the probe takes roughly 4.5 hours to reach Earth, withonly between one and four kilobits of data transmitted per second,NASA, and onlookers across the globe, have no choice but to bepatient for New Horizons to impart its treasure trove of information.
The newly releasedimages reveal a lot about the diverse and surprising natureof Pluto. According to a New Horizons team member, thedwarf planet is at least as geologically diverse as Mars, and thediscoveries made by New Horizons are not limited to the planet's surface.
Pluto's atmospherichaze has a more densely layered structure than had previously beenexpected, so much so that the gas actually illuminates the dark sideof the dwarf planet. Members of the New Horizons science team believethat this effect may even have presented unexpected imagingopportunities for the probe.
The images also appearto highlight vast dunes and nitrogen flows emanating from mountainousregions that may themselves be vast chunks of ice water floating onhuge deposits of frozen nitrogen. Furthermore, as on Mars, the imagespresent evidence of valley networks apparently carved by an unknown flowing material.
"Pluto is showing usa diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rivalanything we’ve seen in the solar system," says New HorizonsPrincipal Investigator Alan Stern, of the South West ResearchInstitute, Boulder, Colorado. "If an artist had painted this Plutobefore our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top – butthat’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.