Seven New Horizons’ Amazing Pluto Images Explained

1. Pluto’s Breathtaking Farewell to New Horizons – Although it was sad to see New Horizons pass by Pluto, seeing the minor planet from behind allowed the silhouette to provide vital clues as to the atmospheric make up of Pluto, which we now know is 90 percent Nitrogen and 10 percent other complex molecules. There is not enough gravity on Pluto to keep the atmosphere from floating out into space. Therefore, it is highly likely that there are active — perhaps even internal — processes, causing chemical reactions which replenish the albeit thin atmosphere.

2. Pluto and Charon in Natural Color – Due to the large comparative size of Pluto’s moon, Charon, the system is different than that of the Earth and its moon; neither orbits the other. Instead, they engage in a complicated dance in which they both orbit a space between the two. One amazing feature is that like the Earth-Moon system the two bodies are tidally locked meaning they always face the same side of each other. This is because Pluto takes 6.4 Earth days to rotate around its axis while its moon Charon takes 6.4 days to orbit Pluto.

Pluto and Charon are shown in enhanced color in this image, which is the highest-resolution color image of the pair yet returned to Earth by New Horizons.

3. Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color – This high definition image of Pluto in real color illustrates many things, such as many smooth features, including the well-know heart shaped feature believed to be frozen carbon monoxide. Alan Stern, Principle Investigator of the New Horizons mission, has indicated that these amazing visuals create new puzzles for scientists who expected a much less dynamic surface.

“It [Pluto’s surface] is going to send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board.”

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this sharper global view of Pluto.

4. Pluto Dazzles in False Color – The false-colored image featured here provides a greater contrast to understand the differences in composition and range of geologies on Pluto’s surface. In this image, the dark “whale” seen to the left of the heart-shaped ice feature is relatively smooth, indicating active geological processes as their are few crators in these dark regions. Theories range from these dark regions consisting of the same “rusty sand” discovered on Mars to recent volcanic activity. This is significant because if there is heat, there could very well be liquid water under Pluto’s surface which harbors life.

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view of Pluto.

5. NASA’s New Horizons Finds Second Mountain Range in Pluto’s ‘Heart’ – The mountain ranges on Pluto are at least as large as the Rocky Mountains on Earth. These mountain ranges, however, are composed of carbon monoxide ice and were formed in the last 100 million years, a blink of the eye in the 4.6 billion years the solar system has existed. Alan Stern has revealed that NASA is at a loss to explain their formation.

“We have no idea at this point how the mountains originated. They are about 11,000 feet high and look to be tens of miles wide. They would stand up against the Rocky Mountains or significant ranges here on earth.”

Pluto’s icy mountains have company. NASA’s New Horizons mission has discovered a new, apparently less lofty mountain range on the lower-left edge of Pluto’s best known feature.

6. New Horizons Captures Two of Pluto’s Smaller Moons – The images of the smaller moons of Pluto provide their own mysteries. The amazing pink color of the potato shaped moon, Hydra, is currently unexplained, though it is believed to be made of a rocky core with a mantle of nitrogen and methane in ice form. It is also possible that these smaller moons could be captured asteroids which are not unlike those which are thought to have struck Earth bringing organic molecules which eventually became the building blocks for all life on Earth. This is what makes all of these smaller bodies tantalising, which is they are living fossils of the early solar system.

While Pluto’s largest moon Charon has grabbed most of the lunar spotlight, two of Pluto’s smaller and lesser-known satellites are coming into focus via new images from the New Horizons spacecraft.

7. Pluto: The Ice Plot Thickens – Perhaps the most significant finding on Pluto is its methane, which can signal life, as methane is the by-product of living organisms. Although it is highly unlikely that Pluto has any life on its surface — the surface temperature is -240 °C or -400 °F — there could be life under its surface and that means Pluto, like Jupiter’s moon, Europa, could be a potential mission for finding life in our own solar system. How would life survive on Pluto if not on the surface? The answer is radioactive decay and tensional stresses which are caused by gravitational stress between Pluto and its moon, Charon. In fact, cracks on Charon’s surface indicate that both Pluto and its moon could have vast underground oceans.

The latest spectra from New Horizons Ralph instrument reveal an abundance of methane ice, but with striking differences from place to place across the frozen surface of Pluto.

From the heart-shaped carbon Monoxide Ice to the tidal lock of Pluto and its moon, Charon, which could help produce the stresses to create friction and heat to warm a possible liquid ocean under the surface, and the continuing association of the Pluto system with love, it is clear that what we thought we knew about this planet — and the anger that some people felt when Pluto was downgraded to the status of dwarf planet — is vastly different than our new curiosity spawned by the mysteries of New Horizons’ amazing images of the Plutonian system.

[Images courtesy of NASA]