Dramatic Pluto images reveal foggy weather, frosty glaciers

New backlit views of Pluto sent home by the New Horizons spacecraft reveal closeups of an Arctic-like landscape against a dramatic, layered sky.

Latest image from New Horizons 'really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto'

'This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,' said Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

A new backlit view of Pluto sent home by the New Horizons spacecraft reveals closeups of an Arctic-like landscape against a dramatic, layered sky.

"This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself," said Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, in a statement accompanying the release of the new images Thursday.

The image was captured by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto 15 minutes after making its closest approach to the dwarf planet on July 14. 

Stern called the image a "scientific bonanza."

Among the new details visible in the images are:

  • More than a dozen haze layers in Pluto's thin nitrogen atmosphere between the ground and an altitude of 100 kilometres.
  • Low-lying hazes in some areas that suggest the weather changes daily on Pluto as it does on Earth.
  • Evidence of a glacial cycle similar to the one on Earth that builds up glaciers and then sees them flowing into the sea.
In this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, the setting sun illuminates a fog or near-surface haze, which is cut by the parallel shadows of many local hills and small mountains. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The main differences between natural cycles involving glaciers on Earth and on Pluto is that the glaciers on Pluto are made of frozen nitrogen, not water, and scientists aren't sure whether a liquid is involved, said Alan Howard, a University of Virginia planetary scientist who is on the New Horizons geology, geophysics and imaging team, in an email to CBC News.

Ice appears to be evaporating from one area of an icy plain known as "Sputnik Planum." After travelling tens to hundreds of kilometres through the atmosphere, It's re-deposited to the east, "probably as frost."

He added in a statement, "We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system."

As on Earth, this cycle is thought to be driven by the sun, even though the sun is far dimmer on Pluto which is on average 40 times farther away from the sun than Earth.

A backlit view highlights the intricate flow lines on the glaciers on Pluto. Ice that appears to have accumulated on the uplands on the right side is draining from Pluto's mountains onto the informally named Sputnik Planum through the three to eight-kilometere wide valleys indicated by the red arrows. The flow front of the ice moving into Sputnik Planum is indicated by the blue arrows. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

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