NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is already making discoveries as it approaches Pluto, revealing the tiny non-planet has a dynamic polar area that contains “bright and dark regions.”
NASA’s New Horizons is still roughly 60 million miles (97 million kilometers) away from Pluto according to Reuters, but it’s already producing low-resolution images for scientists to scrutinize over.
The most surprising detail is the light and dark areas on Pluto’s surface, especially strange considering the tiny celestial body is about 2.7 million to 2.9 billion miles (4.4 to 7.4 billion kilometers) away from the sun, roughly 32 times the distance between the Earth and the sun.
New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern explained, “It’s a mystery.”
“Whether these bright and dark regions are caused by geology or topography or composition. But New Horizons has the capability, as we get closer, to solve just those kinds of mysteries, and we’re looking forward to that.”
The Independent reports the likely culprit is nitrogen ice, exciting news for experts who say finding such markings at this distance is incredibly uncommon.
“It’s rare to see any planet in the Solar System at this low-resolution display such strong surface markings,” Stern added. “Even if you had similar images of Mercury or even Mars, for example, you would not see the same kinds of big surface units as you do here on Pluto.”
NASA’s New Horizons will come within 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) of Pluto’s surface on July 14, when the spacecraft will get the highest resolution pictures of the dwarf planet ever taken. According to Science, NASA launched the $700 million New Horizons spacecraft in 2006 to study Pluto, which has been largely ignored since its discovery in 1930.
During the spacecraft’s journey, Pluto was demoted from planet to “dwarf planet,” a move that remains controversial.
As previously reported by the Inquisitr, NASA also lost a spacecraft recently when the MESSENGER probe crashed on the surface of Mercury after four years of researching the inner-most planet. That probe also discovered polar ice, which might be far more amazing considering the tiny planet’s proximity to the sun.
MESSENGER made numerous surprising discoveries, and New Horizons might well do the same. According to NASA, the spacecraft will attempt to map the surface of both Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, study the dwarf planet’s atmosphere, and record surface temperatures before moving on to other celestial bodies in the Kuiper Belt.
Even though Pluto is no longer a planet, NASA’s spacecraft might still peak people’s interest in the tiny sphere like never before.
[Image Credit: NASA]