Image of the Day: NASA’s Psychedelic Pluto!

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In this spectucular new image of Pluto, NASA's New Horizons team used a technique called principal component analysis to process the images taken on July 14th by its spacecraft's Ralph/MVIC camera. Their goal is to amplify the subtle shade differences between Pluto's regions.

Last week, we reported the discovery of From possible ice volcanoes that to surprised scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission team.

“The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It’s why we explore – to satisfy our innate curiosity and answer deeper questions about how we got here and what lies beyond the next horizon.”

“It’s hard to imagine how rapidly our view of Pluto and its moons are evolving as new data stream in each week. As the discoveries pour in from those data, Pluto is becoming a star of the solar system,” said mission Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “Moreover, I’d wager that for most planetary scientists, any one or two of our latest major findings on one world would be considered astounding. To have them all is simply incredible.”





In one such discovery, New Horizons geologists have combined images of Pluto’s surface to make 3-D maps that indicate that two of Pluto’s most distinctive mountains could be cryovolcanoes—ice volcanoes that may have been active in the recent geological past.

The two cryovolcano candidates are large features measuring tens of miles (tens of kilometers) across and several miles or kilometers high. “These are big mountains with a large hole in their summit, and on Earth that generally means one thing—a volcano,” said Oliver White, New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. While their appearance is similar to volcanoes on Earth that spew molten rock, ice volcanoes on Pluto are expected to emit a somewhat melted slurry of substances such as water ice, nitrogen, ammonia, or methane on Pluto.

White stresses that the team’s interpretation of these features as volcanoes is tentative. However, “If they are volcanic, then the summit depression would likely have formed via collapse as material is erupted from underneath. The strange hummocky texture of the mountain flanks may represent volcanic flows of some sort that have travelled down from the summit region and onto the plains beyond, but why they are hummocky, and what they are made of, we don't yet know.”

If Pluto is proven to have volcanoes, it will provide an important new clue to its geologic and atmospheric evolution. “After all, nothing like this has been seen in the deep outer solar system,” said Jeffrey Moore, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team leader, also from NASA Ames.

Another of the more surprising findings from New Horizons is the wide range of surface ages found on Pluto, from ancient to intermediate to relatively young in geological terms.

Crater counts used to determine surface unit ages indicate that Pluto has ancient surface areas dating to just after the formation of the planets, about 4 billion years ago. In addition, there’s a vast area that was geologically born “yesterday,” meaning it may have formed within the past 10 million years. This area – informally named Sputnik Planum – appears on the left side of Pluto’s “heart” and is completely impact-free in all images returned to date.

Scientists wondered if Sputnik Planum’s smooth, icy plains were an oddity; did a recent geological episode form the plains long after all other geologic activity ceased?

Locations of more than 1,000 craters mapped on Pluto by NASA’s New Horizons mission indicate a wide range of surface ages, which likely means that Pluto has been geologically active throughout its history.

Apparently not. New data from crater counts reveal the presence of intermediate or “middle-aged” terrains on Pluto as well. This suggests that Sputnik Planum is not an anomaly—that Pluto has been geologically active throughout much of its more than 4-billion-year history. “We’ve mapped more than a thousand craters, which vary greatly in size and appearance,” said postdoctoral researcher Kelsi Singer, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “Among other things, I expect cratering studies like these to give us important new insights into how this part of the solar system formed.”

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Image credits: NASA and NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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