New Horizons sends back new high resolution images of Pluto

Updated: 2015-09-14
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Nasa's Pluto experts have revealed new high resolution close up images of the surface of Pluto - and admit they are stunned by the planet. 
They reveal a 'bewildering variety of surface features' that have scientists reeling because of their range and complexity. 
'If an artist had painted this Pluto before our flyby, I probably would have called it over the top — but that's what is actually there,' said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado. 

This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA?s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto's equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across.
'Pluto is showing us a diversity of landforms and complexity of processes that rival anything we've seen in the solar system,' 
New Horizons began its yearlong download of new images and other data over the Labor Day weekend. 
Images downlinked in the past few days have more than doubled the amount of Pluto's surface seen at resolutions as good as 400 meters (440 yards) per pixel.
They reveal new features as diverse as possible dunes, nitrogen ice flows that apparently oozed out of mountainous regions onto plains, and even networks of valleys that may have been carved by material flowing over Pluto's surface. 
They also show large regions that display chaotically jumbled mountains reminiscent of disrupted terrains on Jupiter's icy moon Europa. 
'The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,' said Jeff Moore, leader of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. 
'The randomly jumbled mountains might be huge blocks of hard water ice floating within a vast, denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen within the region informally named Sputnik Planum.' 

This 220-mile (350-kilometer) wide view of Pluto from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). 
Left, the image is dominated by the informally-named icy plain Sputnik Planum, the smooth, bright region across the center. On the right, In the centre of this 300-mile (470-kilometer) wide image of Pluto from NASAs New Horizons spacecraft is a large region of jumbled, broken terrain on the northwestern edge of the vast, icy plain informally called Sputnik Planum, to the right.
New images also show the most heavily cratered -- and thus oldest -- terrain yet seen by New Horizons on Pluto next to the youngest, most crater-free icy plains. 
There might even be a field of dark wind-blown dunes, among other possibilities. 
'Seeing dunes on Pluto -- if that is what they are -- would be completely wild, because Pluto's atmosphere today is so thin,' said William B. McKinnon, a GGI deputy lead from Washington 
University, St. Louis. 'Either Pluto had a thicker atmosphere in the past, or some process we haven't figured out is at work. It's a head-scratcher.' 
Discoveries being made from the new imagery are not limited to Pluto's surface. 
Better images of Pluto's moons Charon, Nix, and Hydra will be released Friday at the raw images site for New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), revealing that each moon is unique and that big moon Charon's geological past was a tortured one. 
Images returned in the past days have also revealed that Pluto's global atmospheric haze has many more layers than scientists realized, and that the haze actually creates a twilight effect that softly illuminates nightside terrain near sunset, making them visible to the cameras aboard New Horizons. 
'This bonus twilight view is a wonderful gift that Pluto has handed to us,' said John Spencer, a GGI deputy lead from SwRI. 
'Now we can study geology in terrain that we never expected to see.' 
The New Horizons spacecraft is now more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion kilometers) from Earth, and more than 43 million miles (69 million kilometers) beyond Pluto. 

This image of Pluto's largest moon Charon, taken by NASA?s New Horizons spacecraft 10 hours before its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers), is a recently downlinked, much higher quality version of a Charon image released on July 15.
The spacecraft is healthy and all systems are operating normally. 
Earlier this month Nasa revealed a new animation of New Horizon's mission to Pluto lets you ride shotgun with the probe as it passes the dwarf planet. 
New Horizons completed its near decade-long journey to Pluto in July, with a historic flyby that captures the best images ever seen of the icy world. 
Nasa has now collected these images into a mesmerising 23-second video, showing the flyby from the spacecraft's point of view.
During its closest approach, the spacecraft came to within 7,800 miles (12,500km) of Pluto's icy surface, travelling at 30,800 mph (49,600 km/h). 
The video includes a pass showing the atmospheric glow of Pluto lit by the sun and a look at Charon, Pluto's largest moon. 
'This animation, made with real images taken by New Horizons, begins with Pluto flying in for its close-up on July 14,' Nasa writes on the video description.
'We then pass behind Pluto and see the atmosphere glow in sunlight before the sun passes behind Charon. 
The animation ends with a wide view of Pluto and Charon looking back on each body as thin crescents as New Horizons makes its departure. 
The shot was taken just seven hours after the probe's closest approach and shows peculiar layers of haze in the dwarf planet's atmosphere.
'This is our equivalent on New Horizons of the Apollo 11 Earthrise,' said New Horizons' Alan Stern, adding that the image confirms the probe had succeeded in its mission. 
Nasa recently selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. 
It will become the first spacecraft to visit the icy blocks encircling our solar system in a ring of debris called the Kuiper Belt. 
The fridge sized craft will head to a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto. 
'Even as the New Horizon's spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer,' said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and chief of the Nasa Science Mission Directorate at the agency headquarters in Washington. 
'While discussions whether to approve this extended mission will take place in the larger context of the planetary science portfolio, we expect it to be much less expensive than the prime mission while still providing new and exciting science.' 
Like all Nasa missions that have finished their main objective but seek to do more exploration, the New Horizons team must write a proposal to the agency to fund a KBO mission. 
That proposal – due in 2016 – will be evaluated by an independent team of experts before Nasa can decide about the go-ahead. 
Early target selection was important; the team needs to direct New Horizons toward the object this year in order to perform any extended mission with healthy fuel margins. 

If approved, New Horizons could become the first spacecraft to explore the Kuiper Belt, around four billion miles from the sun, and perhaps even continue out of the solar system itself into interstellar space, as shown in the graphic above
New Horizons will perform a series of four manoeuvres in late October and early November to set its course toward 2014 MU69 – nicknamed 'PT1' (for 'Potential Target 1') – which it expects to reach on January 1, 2019. 
Any delays from those dates would cost precious fuel and add mission risk.'2014 MU69 is a great choice because it is just the kind of ancient KBO, formed where it orbits now, that the Decadal Survey desired us to fly by,' said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
The New Horizons spacecraft – currently three billion miles [4.9 billion kilometers] from Earth – is just starting to transmit the bulk of the images and other data, stored on its digital recorders, from its historic July encounter with the Pluto system. 
Originally the Hubble Space Telescope identified five objects in the Kuiper Belt that New Horizons could visit, but as their orbits have been observed that number has decreased. 
Professor Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, said that the spacecraft may continue to explore the solar system for decades. 
The spacecraft is powered by a nuclear power source which could last for another 20 years, allowing it to power its instruments and communications equipment. 
Speaking before the spacecraft's launch in 2006, Professor Stern described New Horizons as an 'almost timeless object' that would not only outlast the pyramids but also the mountain ranges of the Earth. 
He said the spacecraft itself would continue to glide out into the galaxy almost unchanged but it would only be possible to maintain contact with it while its power source lasted. 
He also said that the New Horizons team had years of work ahead of them analysing the data being sent back from the spacecraft from its Pluto flyby. 
Due to the painfully slow data link between Earth and the spacecraft, over a distance of nearly three billion miles, it will take New Horizons until 2016 before it has sent back everything it recorded. 
Speaking to, Professor Stern said if a mission extension was granted by Nasa, it could lead to even more exiciting discoveries. 
The first high-resolution image of Pluto beamed by New Horizons revealed 11,000ft (3,350 metre) mountains made of ice. 

After nine and a half years, the New Horizons spacecraft has lifted the veil on the icy world. Pictured are the probe's key instruments
The remarkable image, released alongside new pictures of Pluto's moons Charon and Hydra, provides evidence that geological activity is still taking place on the icy world. 
Scientists were shocked to see mountains as high as those in the Rockies that likely formed 100 million years ago - mere youngsters relative to the 4.56-billion-year age of the solar system. Nasa says they may still be in the process of building. 
Like the rest of Pluto, this region would presumably have been pummeled by space debris for billions of years and would have once been heavily cratered - unless recent activity had given the region a facelift, erasing those pockmarks. 
'We now have an isolated small planet that is showing activity after 4.5 billion years,' said Professor Stern. 'It's going to send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board.' 
'This is one of the youngest surfaces we've ever seen in the solar system,' added Dr Jeff Moore of New Horizons' Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI).
This is the first time astronomers have seen a world that is mostly composed of ice that is not orbiting a planet. 
Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by the gravitational pull of a larger planetary body. Nasa says some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.
'This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,' says GGI deputy team leader Dr John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute. 
The mountains are probably composed of Pluto's water-ice 'bedrock.' 
Although methane and nitrogen ice covers much of the surface of Pluto, these materials are not strong enough to build the mountains. Instead, a stiffer material, most likely water-ice, created the peaks. 
'At Pluto's temperatures, water-ice behaves more like rock,' said deputy GGI lead Professor Bill McKinnon of Washington University, St. Louis. 
Dr Spencer said that the team has yet to find an impact crater in any of the scans, suggesting Pluto is very compared to the solar system. 
The team also announced that the 'heart' feature of Pluto will now be known as the Tombaugh Regio, after Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. 
The close-up image was taken about 1.5 hours before New Horizons closest approach to Pluto, when the craft was 478,000 miles (770,000 km) from the surface of the planet.

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