Pluto’s geology comes to light as flyby draws near

While NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft isn’t scheduled to make its closest approach to Pluto until Tuesday, new photos released by the US space agency over the weekend show the dwarf planet’s distinct surface features in far greater detail than previously possible.

In fact, NASA said that as the science team got their first look at new images captured by the probe’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) instrument on Friday, they reacted with “joy and delight” about the newly visible details on the surface of this distant world.

“We’re close enough now that we’re just starting to see Pluto’s geology,” explained Curt Niebur, a New Horizons program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. He noted that he was most interested in the “tail” of the recently discovered “whale” feature on Pluto, which he called a “unique transition region with a lot of dynamic processes interacting.”

The whale, first spotted by New Horizons last week, is an elongated dark region measuring approximately 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length. Located to the right of the whale’s snout was the brightest region visible on Pluto – a 990-mile (1,600 kilometers) area believed to contain frost deposits, which may include frozen methane, nitrogen, and/or carbon monoxide.

Polygonal structures among new features detected

The images released over the weekend were taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million kilometers) away, with a resolution of 17 miles (27 kilometers) per pixel, NASA noted. They also include the first signs of discrete geologic features on the dwarf planet and show the side of Pluto always facing Charon.

pluto geology

Credit: NASA

“Among the structures tentatively identified in this new image are what appear to be polygonal features; a complex band of terrain stretching east-northeast across the planet, approximately 1,000 miles long; and a complex region where bright terrains meet the dark terrains of the whale,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said.

“After nine and a half years in flight, Pluto is well worth the wait,” he added. The spacecraft will continue to collect images and data as it moves closer and closer to Pluto, as it looks to conclude its three-billion mile journey by making its closest approach to the dwarf planet on Tuesday, July 14 – marking the 50th anniversary of the Mariner 4 spacecraft’s flyby of Mars.


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