New high-res Pluto images show "snakeskin surface"
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 fromthe data download have provided us with a wealth of stunning imageryand scientific insights into the nature of Pluto. We have seen vasticy plains, mountain ranges and even proof of a hydrological cycle at work in the dwarf planet's atmosphere.
The new images addanother page in our exploration of this enigmatic celestial body. Oneshot in particular (above) has taken the New Horizons team aback,features a landscape of aligned ridges that combine to give thesurface a snakeskin-like appearance. It was captured by the spacecraft'sRalph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) and contains a viewof the Tartarus Dorsa mountains, highlighted beautifully in the shotby the terminator line.
Also included in thenew release was an "extended color" view of the dwarfplanet, which enhanced Pluto's natural hues with the infrared channelof the MVIC to emphasize the myriad colors saturating the surfaceof the unusual "not planet."
"Pluto’s surfacecolors were enhanced in this view to reveal subtle details in arainbow of pale blues, yellows, oranges, and deep reds", statesJohn Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from Southwest Research Institute(SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. "Many landforms have their owndistinct colors, telling a wonderfully complex geological andclimatological story that we have only just begun to decode."
Images from thespacecraft'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 SputnikPlanum basin to the right, as well as mountains and craters in themore broken region on the left. Taken shortly before New Horizons'closest approach to the dwarf planet, the image allows viewers topick out relatively small features spanning only 270 yards (250 m).
Sputnik Planum, whichhas been the focal point of many of the images returned by NewHorizons, is featured once more in the release. Ahigher resolutionimage of the plain shows that its apparently smooth surface is infact marked with pits and ridges, at odds with the seemingly pristineimage presented from afar. The team have mooted that the terrain maybe the result of sublimation similar to the process taking place on67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
For the first time, NewHorizons has included data from its infrared spectrometer. Readingsreturned from the spectrometer show highly contrasting levels ofmethane ice distribution across the surface of Pluto. The ice appearsto have settled heavily in the Sputnik Planum region while almostcompletely avoiding other duller regions. NASA scientists are unsurewhether the ice settled as a result of the brightness of the terrain,or whether the condensation from the ice is itself the reason for thebrightness.
"With thesejust-downlinked images and maps, we’ve turned a new page in thestudy of Pluto beginning to reveal the planet at high resolution inboth color and composition," Alan Stern, Principal Investigator ofthe New Horizons mission. "I wish Pluto’s discoverer ClydeTombaugh had lived to see this day."