Man, no kidding. Just look at these. The flood hath commenced, and the imagery is superb. What the photos reveal is a small orb with an incredible diversity of landscapes. Jumbled peaks, dunes, crepuscular rays, valley networks and even what appears to be a frozen lake come to life in these spectacular close ups taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its closest approach to Pluto and its moons in mid-July.
“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. “The randomly jumbled mountains (photo above) 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,” he added in a news release this afternoon. If so, they resemble the great blocks of frozen-in-place ice seen on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The new pictures also show the most heavily cratered therefore presumably the oldest terrain right 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.”
The latest batch of images also reveal 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. There are even streaks in the haze possibly caused by shadows cast by Plutonian mountain peaks.
We also have a new, higher resolution view of Pluto’s largest moon Charon that shows tectonic fracturing of the surface, rayed craters and more wonders for the eye. The New Horizons spacecraft remains healthy with all systems operating normally now more than 3 billion miles (about 5 billion km) from Earth, and more than 43 million miles (69 million km) beyond Pluto. You’ll see the highest resolution versions of all of today’s Pluto photos by simply clicking on each image.