So…Pluto may have a polar ice cap

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

New images captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have revealed a bright feature near the visible pole of the dwarf planet Pluto – a feature that could be a polar cap made of frozen molecular nitrogen ice, officials from the US space agency announced on Wednesday.

The feature, one of several dark and bright spots captured using New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera earlier this month, appears to be brighter than its surroundings, leading scientists to believe it may be caused by a “cap” of highly reflective snow.

The images were captured from a distance of less than 70 million miles (113 million kilometers) during the early and middle parts of the month, and the polar cap hypothesis will be confirmed or disproven when the spacecraft completes a close flyby of Pluto in July, NASA said.

An early look at Pluto and its largest moon

In addition to the possible polar cap, these LORRI images revealed changing brightness patterns from place to place as the dwarf planet rotates, the agency said. The resolution of the raw images were improved using a mathematical technique known as “deconvolution,” which restored nearly the image to full resolution.

Pluto LORRI

“As we approach the Pluto system we are starting to see intriguing features such as a bright region near Pluto’s visible pole, starting the great scientific adventure to understand this enigmatic celestial object,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement. “As we get closer, the excitement is building in our quest to unravel the mysteries of Pluto using data from New Horizons.”

In addition to capturing pictures and video of Pluto, the spacecraft’s cameras were able to snap images of its largest moon, Charon, rotating during its 6.4-day long orbit, the agency said. The exposure times needed to create this image set were just one-tenth of a second, making them too short for the camera to detect and capture images of the dwarf planet’s smaller moons.

Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said that it was “stunning” to get a good look at Pluto and its surface features after a journey of more than nine years. He added that these “incredible” images are “already showing us that Pluto has a complex surface.”

“We can only imagine what surprises will be revealed when New Horizons passes approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface this summer,” added Hal Weaver, project scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Maryland.

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