Tag Archives: Pluto

Dunes on Pluto?

Dunes on Pluto

Cool image time! Scientists reviewing images taken by New Horizons when it flew past Pluto in 2015 have discovered what appear to be dunes of methane on the icepack of nitrogen of Sputnik Planitia. The image on the right, cropped to post here, shows these dunes. You can see the full image if you click on it.

Following spatial analysis of the dunes and nearby wind streaks on the planet’s surface, as well as spectral and numerical modelling, scientists believe that sublimation (which converts solid nitrogen directly into a gas) results in sand-sized grains of methane being released into the environment.

These are then transported by Pluto’s moderate winds (which can reach between 30 and 40 kmh), with the border of the ice plain and mountain range providing the perfect location for such regular surface formations to appear.

The scientists also believe the undisturbed morphology of the dunes and their relationship with the underlying glacial ice suggests the features are likely to have been formed within the last 500,000 years, and possibly much more recently.

There remains a lot of uncertainty here. The features do look like dunes in the image, but it is also possible that other phenomenon not yet understood could have caused this pattern on the icepack surface. Also, the resolution of the image is not sufficient to really see detail at this level. A different process on the surface could be fooling our eyes.

Nonetheless, the scientists hypothesis makes sense, and fits the data known. It also demonstrates again that, even billions of miles from the Sun, in as alien an environment we can imagine, the planet Pluto is an active and complex place.

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Pluto formed from a billion comets?

Scientists have come up with a new theory for the origin of Pluto, based on data from New Horizons and Rosetta, that suggests the planets formed from the accretion of a billion comets or Kuiper Belt objects.

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation,” said Dr. Christopher Glein of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. The research is described in a paper published online today in Icarus. At the heart of the research is the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia, a large glacier that forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface. “We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

This is only a hypothesis, but it is intriguing. It suggests that Pluto’s make-up came only from the outer parts of the solar system, thus constraining how much mixing between the solar system’s inner and outer regions occurred. For scientists trying to understand the formation of the entire solar system, this lack of mixing would be significant. It means that the gas giants, while migrating inward, never migrated outward.

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Pluto is a planet

In an op-ed today, the principal investigator for the New Horizons’ mission as well as his co-author for the history of that mission explained in detail why the definition for planet as imposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is flawed and unworkable.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced an attempted redefinition of the word “planet” that excluded many objects, including Pluto. We think that decision was flawed, and that a logical and useful definition of planet will include many more worlds.

We find ourselves using the word planet to describe the largest “moons” in the solar system. Moon refers to the fact that they orbit around other worlds which themselves orbit our star, but when we discuss a world like Saturn’s Titan, which is larger than the planet Mercury, and has mountains, dunes and canyons, rivers, lakes and clouds, you will find us — in the literature and at our conferences — calling it a planet. This usage is not a mistake or a throwback. It is increasingly common in our profession and it is accurate.

Most essentially, planetary worlds (including planetary moons) are those large enough to have pulled themselves into a ball by the strength of their own gravity. Below a certain size, the strength of ice and rock is enough to resist rounding by gravity, and so the smallest worlds are lumpy. This is how, even before New Horizons arrives, we know that Ultima Thule is not a planet. Among the few facts we’ve been able to ascertain about this body is that it is tiny (just 17 miles across) and distinctly nonspherical. This gives us a natural, physical criterion to separate planets from all the small bodies orbiting in space — boulders, icy comets or rocky and metallic asteroids, all of which are small and lumpy because their gravity is too weak for self-rounding.

They go on to explain the flawed history of the IAU definition, and how it has simply not been accepted by astronomers and planetary scientists alike. The definition makes no sense, and excludes the thousands of exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars. They also point to a proposed new definition that is simple and admits to reality.

A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters.

Whether or not the stuffed shirts at IAU ever officially endorse this definition, it is the one that human beings are using now, and it will be the one they use into the never-ending future.

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Haze on Pluto lowers its global climate temperature 54º F

Using data collected during New Horizons’ fly-by, scientists have found that the planet’s atmosphere is 54º F colder than predicted, and from this they theorize that the presence of haze in that atmosphere is what cools it.

Pluto’s atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen, with smaller amounts of compounds such as methane. High in the atmosphere — between 500 and 1,000 kilometres above the surface — sunlight triggers chemical reactions that transform some of these gases into solid hydrocarbon particles.

The particles then drift downward and, at around 350 kilometres above Pluto’s surface, clump with others to form long chemical chains. By the time they reach 200 kilometres’ altitude, the particles have transformed into thick layers of haze, which the New Horizons spacecraft saw dramatically blanketing Pluto.

Zhang and his colleagues compared the heating and cooling effects of the atmosphere’s gas molecules to those of its haze particles. Earlier studies have suggested that the presence of gas molecules, such as hydrogen cyanide, could help explain why Pluto’s atmosphere is so cold. But Zhang’s team found that including haze was the only way to get their model to match the temperatures that New Horizons measured as it flew by the dwarf planet.

This theory remains unproven. Moreover, there are other explanations proposed for the cold atmosphere by other scientists. It will take new instruments and future probes to resolve the question.

The post has been corrected. My math in calculating the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit was initially faulty. Thanks to reader Kirk for spotting the error.

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A map of Pluto

Our best map of Pluto for many decades to come

The New Horizons science team has released the best maps of both Pluto and Charon possible from the images taken during the spacecraft’s fly-by of the ninth planet last year.

The new maps include global mosaics of Pluto and Charon, assembled from nearly all of the highest-resolution images obtained by New Horizons’ Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). These mosaics are the most detailed and comprehensive global views yet of the Pluto and Charon surfaces using New Horizons data.

The new collection also includes topography maps of the hemispheres of Pluto and Charon visible to New Horizons during the spacecraft’s closest approach. The topography is derived from digital stereo-image mapping tools that measure the parallax – or the difference in the apparent relative positions – of features on the surface obtained at different viewing angles during the encounter. Scientists use these parallax displacements of high and low terrain to estimate landform heights.

You will also notice large areas of both Pluto and Charon that remain very fuzzy and unclear. What exactly is there will remain a mystery for many decades to come.

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New Horizons halfway to 2014 MU69

Since flying past Pluto in July 2014 New Horizons has now flown halfway to its next target, Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69.

The fly-by will take place on January 1, 2019.

Posted from the South Rim after hiking out today from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Since Saturday I did about 40 miles of hiking, both near and inside the Canyon. I hope to post some details in the coming days.

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Scientists propose new planet definition that reinstates Pluto

Unhappy since 2006 with the definition of “planet” imposed by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that demoted Pluto, planetary scientists, including New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, have now proposed a new definition that they think is more appropriate and would reinstate Pluto.

The scientists suggest planets should constitute as “round objects in space that are smaller than stars,” thus excluding white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes from the planetary status. “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters,” the proposal elaborates, noting that the Earth’s moon would constitute as a planet under the new definition.

Stern and his colleagues note that the IAU’s definition of a planet is too narrow and recognizes planets only as objects that orbit our sun and “requires zone clearing, which no planet in our solar system can satisfy since new small bodies are constantly injected into planet-crossing orbits.”

Make sense to me as well as a lot of people. The definition created in 2006 was never very satisfactory, and I know many planetary scientists who have never accepted it.

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New conclusions about Pluto from New Horizons data

Based on New Horizons data scientists have proposed that Pluto’s equatorial tilt has been shifted because of a seasonal pile-up of nitrogen that literally causes the planet to tip over.

Over the course of a Pluto year, nitrogen and other exotic gases condense on the permanently shadowed regions, and eventually, as Pluto goes around the sun, those frozen gases heat up, become gaseous again and re-condense on the other side of the planet, resulting in seasonal “snowfall” on Sputnik Planitia. “Each time Pluto goes around the sun, a bit of nitrogen accumulates in the heart,” Keane said. “And once enough ice has piled up, maybe a hundred meters thick, it starts to overwhelm the planet’s shape, which dictates the planet’s orientation. And if you have an excess of mass in one spot on the planet, it wants to go to the equator. Eventually, over millions of years, it will drag the whole planet over.”

The theory also requires there to be a subsurface ocean as well.

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New Horizons returns the last data from Pluto fly-by

The New Horizons science team announced today that they have finally received the last bit of data obtained by the spacecraft during its July 14, 2015 fly-by of Pluto.

Having traveled from the New Horizons spacecraft over 3.1 billion miles (five hours, eight minutes at light speed), the final item – a segment of a Pluto-Charon observation sequence taken by the Ralph/LEISA imager – arrived at mission operations at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, at 5:48 a.m. EDT on Oct. 25. The downlink came via NASA’s Deep Space Network station in Canberra, Australia. It was the last of the 50-plus total gigabits of Pluto system data transmitted to Earth by New Horizons over the past 15 months.

Once they have checked this data, they will wipe the spacecraft’s onboard hard drives to prepare for the January 1, 2019 fly-by of Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69.

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Landslides on Charon

Landslide on Charon

Images from New Horizons have detected evidence of past avalanches on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. The image on the right is a reduced version of a perspective view created using data from various instruments.

This perspective view of Charon’s informally named “Serenity Chasm” consists of topography generated from stereo reconstruction of images taken by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), supplemented by a “shape-from-shading” algorithm. The topography is then overlain with the PIA21128 image mosaic and the perspective view is rendered. The MVIC image was taken from a distance of 45,458 miles (73,159 kilometers) while the LORRI picture was taken from 19,511 miles (31,401 kilometers) away, both on July 14, 2015.

close-up of landslide

To the left is a close-up taken from the annotated image. You can see the slump materials at the base of the mountain left behind after the material slide down the mountain. It is not clear whether it is Charon’s lower gravity and alien composition and environment (very very very cold) that makes this look more muddy than one would expect, or whether it is because of the limited resolution of the original image and the modeling to create the oblique version.

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Charon’s red polar region explained?

Scientists, using data from New Horizons as well as new computer models, think they have come up with an explanation for the red polar region of Pluto’s moon Charon.

As they detail this week in the international scientific journal Nature, Charon’s polar coloring comes from Pluto itself – as methane gas that escapes from Pluto’s atmosphere and becomes “trapped” by the moon’s gravity and freezes to the cold, icy surface at Charon’s pole. This is followed by chemical processing by ultraviolet light from the sun that transforms the methane into heavier hydrocarbons and eventually into reddish organic materials called tholins.

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New Horizons looks back at Pluto

One year after New Horizons’ breath-taking fly-by of Pluto, the science team has written a review of what they have learned.

They list what they consider the mission’s top ten discoveries, which I think can be summed up in one phrase: the uncertainty of science. Pluto was more active geologically and atmospherically than predicted by all models. It was also more complex. Other surprises: Both Pluto and Charon show evidence of sub-surface liquid oceans of water. Charon’s dark red polar baffles them. They unexpectedly found no additional moons, and also discovered that as far as they can tell by the available data, the moons were all formed when Pluto formed, something they also did not expect.

The one thing that I expected that did happen? We got close, and discovered things we had not expected. Be prepared for further surprises when New Horizons flies past Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 on January 1, 2019.

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Pluto might have subsurface liquid water ocean

An analysis of the data sent back from New Horizons strongly suggests that Pluto might still have a liquid ocean of water beneath its surface.

The pictures New Horizons sent back from its close encounter with the Kuiper Belt’s most famous denizen showed that Pluto was much more than a simple snowball in space. It has an exotic surface made from different types of ices — water, nitrogen and methane. It has mountains hundreds of meters high and a vast heart-shaped plain. It also has giant tectonic features — sinuous faults hundreds of kilometers long as deep as 4 kilometers. It was those tectonic features that got scientists thinking that a subsurface ocean was a real possibility for Pluto. “What New Horizons showed was that there are extensional tectonic features, which indicate that Pluto underwent a period of global expansion,” Hammond said. “A subsurface ocean that was slowly freezing over would cause this kind of expansion.”

Scientists think that there may have been enough heat-producing radioactive elements within Pluto’s rocky core to melt part of the planet’s ice shell. Over time in the frigid Kuiper belt, that melted portion would eventually start to refreeze. Ice is less dense than water, so when it freezes, it expands. If Pluto had on ocean that was frozen or in the process of freezing, extensional tectonics on the surface would result, and that’s what New Horizons saw.

I must emphasize that this result has a great deal of uncertainty. Nonetheless, it suggests once again that we might liquid water in space in a lot of places we never expected or imagined.

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Pluto’s jagged shores

Pluto's jagged shoreline

Cool image time! The picture on the right, taken by New Horizons during its July 2015 flyby and cropped and reduced here, shows the reddish hues of the Krun Macula dark region along the shore of Pluto’s vast nitrogen ice plains. The hillsides here rise about a mile and a half above both the plains and the valleys, making them deeper than the Grand Canyon. The hills are “believed to get its dark red color from tholins, complex molecules found across Pluto.”

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Pluto: the world’s largest lava lamp

In comparing the New Horizons’ data with computer simulations, scientists have determined that the frozen nitrogen in the heart-shaped Sputnik Planum region rises and sinks as the nitrogen is heated from below.

McKinnon and colleagues believe the pattern of these cells stems from the slow thermal convection of the nitrogen-dominated ices that fill Sputnik Planum. A reservoir that’s likely several miles deep in some places, the solid nitrogen is warmed by Pluto’s modest internal heat, becomes buoyant and rises up in great blobs – like a lava lamp – before cooling off and sinking again to renew the cycle. The computer models show that ice need only be a few miles deep for this process to occur, and that the convection cells are very broad. The models also show that these blobs of overturning solid nitrogen can slowly evolve and merge over millions of years. Ridges that mark where cooled nitrogen ice sinks back down can be pinched off and abandoned, resulting in Y- or X-shaped features in junctions where three or four convection cells once met.

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New Horizons’ best Pluto close-up

Pitted nitrogen ice plains on Pluto

The New Horizons science team has released the highest resolution image across Pluto’s face, taken by the spacecraft during its flyby last year.

This mosaic strip, extending across the hemisphere that faced the New Horizons spacecraft as it flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, now includes all of the highest-resolution images taken by the NASA probe. With a resolution of about 260 feet (80 meters) per pixel, the mosaic affords New Horizons scientists and the public the best opportunity to examine the fine details of the various types of terrain the mosaic covers, and determine the processes that formed and shaped them.

The view extends from the “limb” of Pluto at the top of the strip, almost to the “terminator” (or day/night line) in the southeast of the encounter hemisphere, seen at the bottom of the strip. The width of the strip ranges from more than 55 miles (90 kilometers) at its northern end to about 45 miles (75 kilometers) at its southern end. The perspective changes greatly along the strip: at its northern end, the view looks out horizontally across the surface, while at its southern end, the view looks straight down onto the surface.

Go to the full image, go to its top, center your browser on the image, and then pan down slowly to see it in all its glory. The image above is cropped from about two-thirds of the way down, about when the terrain is transitioning from what they call cellular nitrogen ice plains to pitted non-cellular nitrogen ice plains. It includes what looks like a cluster of cave pits on the left.

They have also provided a video which does the same as panning down yourself, but adds a scale and labeling.

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More weird Pluto geology

fretted terrain

Cool image time! The New Horizons science team has released an image taken during the spacecraft’s fly-by of Pluto in July 2015 showing what they are calling “fretted terrain”.

The image above is a cropped reduced section of that image. It shows the strange transition zone between the higher elevation bright areas and the lower dark plains. As they note,

New Horizons scientists haven’t seen this type of terrain anywhere else on Pluto; in fact, it’s rare terrain across the solar system – the only other well-known example of such being Noctis Labyrinthus on Mars. The distinct interconnected valley network was likely formed by extensional fracturing of Pluto’s surface. The valleys separating the blocks may then have been widened by movement of nitrogen ice glaciers, or flowing liquids, or possibly by ice sublimation at the block margins.

In other words, they really don’t know what is going on.

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Pluto’s solar wind interaction more like a planet’s

Data from New Horizons has found that Pluto, in its interaction with the solar wind, behaves more like a planet than a comet.

Previously, most researchers thought that Pluto was characterized more like a comet, which has a large region of gentle slowing of the solar wind, as opposed to the abrupt diversion solar wind encounters at a planet like Mars or Venus. Instead, like a car that’s part gas- and part battery-powered, Pluto is a hybrid, the researchers say. “This is an intermediate interaction, a completely new type. It’s not comet-like, and it’s not planet-like. It’s in-between,” McComas said. “We’ve now visited all nine of the classical planets and examined all their solar wind interactions, and we’ve never seen anything like this.”

…Pluto continues to confound. Since it’s so far from the sun – an average of about 5.9 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) – and because it’s so small, scientists thought Pluto’s gravity would not be strong enough to hold heavy ions in its extended atmosphere. But, “Pluto’s gravity clearly is enough to keep material sufficiently confined,” McComas said. Further, the scientists found that very little of Pluto’s atmosphere is comprised of neutral particles converted to electrically charged ions and swept out into space.

As I’ve written previously, we simply don’t know enough yet about planets to come up with a reasonable definition. As far as I’m concerned, Pluto will remain a planet until we do.

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The depressed heart of Pluto

Using elevation data gathered by New Horizons during its fly-by of Pluto last year scientists have created an elevation map of the heart-shaped Sputnik Planum that shows that its central region is on average two miles deeper than the surrounding terrain.

The data even shows giant blocks of frozen water floating on the denser nitrogen ice.

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Halo craters on Pluto

More images from New Horizons reveal even more strange terrain on Pluto.

Data suggest that the bright rims are made of methane ice, while the dark crater floors are made of water ice, though why this has happened is a complete mystery. As they note at the link above, “Exactly why the bright methane ice settles on these crater rims and walls is a mystery; also puzzling is why this same effect doesn’t occur broadly across Pluto.”

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Frozen pond on Pluto

Cool image time! The New Horizons’ science team on Thursday released a new image, showing a remarkable frozen pond on Pluto. As they note:

“In addition to this possible former lake, we also see evidence of channels that may also have carried liquids in Pluto’s past,” said Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado—principal investigator of New Horizons and lead author of a scientific paper on the topic submitted to the journal Icarus.

This feature appears to be a frozen, former lake of liquid nitrogen, located in a mountain range just north of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum. Captured by the New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) as the spacecraft flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, the image shows details as small as about 430 feet (130 meters). At its widest point the possible lake appears to be about 20 miles (30 kilometers) across.

I have not posted the image here, because I have already posted this image on Behind the Black, back on October 6, 2015, in which I wrote in part,

The image shows what looks like an enclosed lake of some material, probably nitrogen, with the bedrock entrapping it solid ice. In addition, as you move away from the shore and head uphill it looks like you travel across several geological layers made of different materials. Figuring out how they formed in this way could probably keep a geologist busy for his or her entire life.

I had also then noted how I expected the scientists would be “drooling” over this image, and that I expected a full press release on it at some point. It took six months, but here we are.

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Pluto 8 months after fly-by

The New Horizons science team today published five papers summarizing what they have so far learned from the data obtained during last year’s July 14 fly-by and since downloaded.

Two of the many discoveries are to me the most interesting: The first illustrates Pluto’s strange and very active geology:

Age-dating of Pluto’s surface through crater counts has revealed that Pluto has been geologically active throughout the past 4 billion years. Further, the surface of Pluto’s informally named Sputnik Planum, a massive ice plain larger than Texas, is devoid of any detectable craters and estimated to be geologically young – no more than 10 million years old.

Moreover, the materials that cause Pluto to be geologically active are much more complicated than anything on Earth:

Scientists studying Pluto’s composition say the diversity of the planet’s landscape stems from eons of interaction between highly volatile and mobile methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide ices with inert and sturdy water ice. “We see variations in the distribution of Pluto’s volatile ices that point to fascinating cycles of evaporation and condensation,” said Will Grundy, from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and lead author of the composition paper. “These cycles are a lot richer than on Earth, where there’s really only one material that condenses and evaporates – water. On Pluto, there are least three materials, and while they interact in ways we don’t yet fully understand, we definitely see their effects all across Pluto’s surface.”

The second discovery that fascinates me has to do with the formation of Pluto and all its moons:

The high albedos (reflectiveness) of Pluto’s small satellites are entirely different from the much lower albedos of the small bodies in the general Kuiper Belt population (which range from about 5 to 20 percent). This difference lends further support to the idea that these satellites were not captured from the general Kuiper Belt population, but instead formed by agglomeration in a disk of material produced in the aftermath of the giant collision that created the entire Pluto satellite system.

In other words, Pluto and its moons are not a collection of different Kuiper Belt objects brought together over time. Instead, they formed together.

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Clouds on Pluto?

A report from New Scientist today claims that the New Horizons science team has possibly seen individual clouds in some images.

Grundy had spotted features in the haze on the edge – or “limb” – of Pluto that seemed to stand out from the distinct layers. But more intriguingly, he had also seen a bright feature crossing different parts of the landscape, suggesting it was hovering above. The email kicked off a discussion as to whether the clouds were real, because it was difficult to see whether they cast shadows on the ground. The team also deliberated over the exact distinction between clouds and hazes. “One way to think of it is that clouds are discrete features, hazes widespread,” wrote Alan Stern, who heads up the New Horizons mission.

There has been no public mention of the clouds, suggesting that the team isn’t sure about the detection.

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Methane ice on Pluto’s mountain peaks

New images from New Horizons of the dark Cthulhu region have revealed white-capped mountain peaks, thought to be methane ice.

Scientists think this bright material could be predominantly methane that has condensed as ice onto the peaks from Pluto’s atmosphere. “That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” said John Stansberry, a New Horizons science team member from Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland.

We as humans are attracted to features on other worlds that remind us of Earth, mainly because this allows us to quickly understand what we are seeing. It is important however to remind ourselves continually that Pluto is not Earth, and is in fact a very alien place. Many things we think we recognize are really very different than what we assume. For example, the methane ice here is coating mountains made of water ice that is as stable as granite in Pluto’s super cold environment.

One more thing: It appears that at this point, seven months after New Horizons flew past Pluto, they have still only downloaded less than half the data obtained. This is not a problem, as this is how things were planned, but it does mean that there are likely many more discoveries yet for us to see.

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A frozen underground ocean on Charon?

Data from New Horizons of the surface of Pluto’s moon Charon now suggests that the satellite once had an underground ocean that is now frozen.

Charon’s outer layer is primarily water ice. When the moon was young this layer was warmed by the decay of radioactive elements, as well as Charon’s own internal heat of formation. Scientists say Charon could have been warm enough to cause the water ice to melt deep down, creating a subsurface ocean. But as Charon cooled over time, this ocean would have frozen and expanded (as happens when water freezes), pushing the surface outward and producing the massive chasms we see today.

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The first geology map of Pluto

Geology map of Pluto

The New Horizons science team has now released the first geology map of a portion of Pluto, seen by the spacecraft during its fly-by last year.

It is definitely worth your while to take a look at the full image, along with the legend explaining the different surface features. Most of the geological terms are merely descriptive, but the careful breakdown still provides a much deeper understanding of what is there.

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The floating mountains of Pluto

Pluto's floating mountains

The New Horizons science team has released a new image of Pluto’s smooth heart-shaped area, dubbed Sputnik Planum, focusing this time on the mountains of water ice that pop up through the plain and are apparently floating on the nitrogen sea, having broken off from the shoreline.

Because water ice is less dense than nitrogen-dominated ice, scientists believe these water ice hills are floating in a sea of frozen nitrogen and move over time like icebergs in Earth’s Arctic Ocean. The hills are likely fragments of the rugged uplands that have broken away and are being carried by the nitrogen glaciers into Sputnik Planum. ‘Chains’ of the drifting hills are formed along the flow paths of the glaciers. When the hills enter the cellular terrain of central Sputnik Planum, they become subject to the convective motions of the nitrogen ice, and are pushed to the edges of the cells, where the hills cluster in groups reaching up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) across.

I have significantly cropped the image to show it here. Be sure and check out the full version, because there is a wealth of fascinating details in it.

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Water ice on Pluto’s surface

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of data from New Horizons suggests that water ice is more widespread on Pluto’s surface than previously believed.

The new map shows exposed water ice to be considerably more widespread across Pluto’s surface than was previously known — an important discovery. But despite its much greater sensitivity, the map still shows little or no water ice in the informally named places called Sputnik Planum (the left or western region of Pluto’s “heart”) and Lowell Regio (far north on the encounter hemisphere). This indicates that at least in these regions, Pluto’s icy bedrock is well hidden beneath a thick blanket of other ices such as methane, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.

As the press release notes, water ice is actually “Pluto’s crustal ‘bedrock'”, so there really is plenty there. It is just buried below a surface of methane, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide “topsoil”.

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New spectacular images of Pluto

Pluto's mountainous shoreline

Many cool images! The New Horizons science team has today released new images from the spacecraft’s close fly-by of Pluto.

These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel – revealing features less than half the size of a city block on the diverse surface of the distant planet. In these new images, New Horizons captured a wide variety of spectacular, cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains.

I have cropped and lowered the resolution of the image above to fit it here. Make sure you click on the link to see it and the other images. As they note,

In this highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Several sheer faces appear to show crustal layering, perhaps related to the layers seen in some of Pluto’s crater walls. Other materials appear crushed between the mountains, as if these great blocks of water ice, some standing as much as 1.5 miles high, were jostled back and forth. The mountains end abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named Sputnik Planum, where the soft, nitrogen-rich ices of the plain form a nearly level surface, broken only by the fine trace work of striking, cellular boundaries and the textured surface of the plain’s ices (which is possibly related to sunlight-driven ice sublimation).

Today’s release also includes a short animation of a faint distant Kuiper Belt object, assembled by four images taken by New Horizons. The images don’t show much more than a streak of light, but the feat of imaging this object by a spacecraft billions of miles away in this manner is breath-taking.

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