NASA New Horizons Finds ‘Icy Spider’ On Pluto

NASA New Horizons images show an “icy spider” formation on the surface of Pluto that has fascinated scientists. The icy spider image is just the latest in a string of revelations about Pluto coming from the highly successful NASA New Horizons mission.

Pluto, the icy rock demoted from full planet status to that of a dwarf planet a few years ago, continues to amaze NASA New Horizon scientists with its unique geological features. This week, the NASA New Horizons mission released enhanced images of Pluto’s surface that show what has been dubbed an “icy spider” formation. More correctly, it’s a giant red spider formation that is caused by fractures on Pluto’s icy surface. Oliver White is part of the New Horizons geology team from NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and he commented in a media release.

“The pattern these fractures form is like nothing else we’ve seen in the outer solar system, and shows once again that anywhere we look on Pluto, we see something different.”

Enhanced color images taken last July at a distance of just over 21,000 miles from Pluto show a pattern of six fractures, the icy spider’s legs, that converge at a single point. The pattern extends roughly north through the area known as Tartarus Dorsa. The longest legs of the icy spider formation run north-south; the very longest of all six measures 360 miles or 580 kilometers in length and is located in an area called Sleipnir Fossa. As noted on CNET, the name references Sleipnir, a horse with eight legs taken from Norse mythology, which reinforces the spider motif.

The Tartarus Dorsa area is noted for its bladed terrain made up of what looks like bluish gray mountain ridges with the cracks or fractures appearing like red lines between them, as the NASA New Horizons three-dimensional images reveal. The pattern has puzzled NASA New Horizons scientists, but while the red, icy spider formation on Pluto is unique, it’s actually not the first time they have seen similar features.

The bluish gray material is an outer layer that has frozen into ridges. The fissures that create icy spider legs expose a different material underneath. NASA New Horizons scientists have seen surface fissures or cracks before, including others elsewhere on the surface of Pluto. On Pluto, the other surface cracks that have been observed tend to run in parallel lines and NASA researchers believe they are the result of the way that Pluto’s growing cover of water ice extends, essentially folding over itself.

NASA New Horizons scientists theorize that the icy spider pattern with its single converging point may instead be the result of material that is expanding and pushing up on the surface ice from underneath. It would explain the way the icy spider legs appear as a different color as well as the non-parallel pattern of the cracks.

In a media release, the NASA New Horizons scientists mention that the icy spider pattern has some similarities to others that have been observed on Venus by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft, as well as a geological formation called the Pantheon Fossae as viewed by NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

The NASA New Horizons mission aiming for a Pluto flyby was launched on January 19, 2006. The New Horizons craft actually performed the Pluto flyby on July 14, 2015. Ever since then, NASA scientists and researchers have been poring over the thousands of images that were transmitted back to earth along with other data. The NASA New Horizons’ goal was to study Pluto along with its moons and the Kuiper Belt that circles our sun at the outer limits of the solar system. Because of its distance, little was known about Pluto and the outer solar system until last summer when the first images from the NASA New Horizons mission began to arrive.

[Image via NASA]