Using actual New Horizons data and digital elevation models of Pluto and its largest moon Charon, mission scientists have created flyover movies that offer spectacular new perspectives of the many unusual features that were discovered and which have reshaped our views of the Pluto system – from a vantage point even closer than the spacecraft itself.
This dramatic Pluto flyover begins over the highlands to the southwest of the great expanse of nitrogen ice plain informally named Sputnik Planitia. The viewer first passes over the western margin of Sputnik, where it borders the dark, cratered terrain of Cthulhu Macula, with the blocky mountain ranges located within the plains seen on the right. The tour moves north past the rugged and fractured highlands of Voyager Terra and then turns southward over Pioneer Terra — which exhibits deep and wide pits — before concluding over the bladed terrain of Tartarus Dorsa in the far east of the encounter hemisphere.
Digital mapping and rendering were performed by Paul Schenk and John Blackwell of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
The lava lake, known as Loki Patera, is the largest on the surface at 200 kilometers (125 miles) across. It’s so big, that it dwarves lava lakes seen here on Earth, where our largest known lava lake is a mere 200 meters (600 feet) in width.
Using a process known as occultation, a team from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) was able to indirectly observe the motion of the waves across Loki Patera to infer the size of the lake. Using this process, they were able to infer that the lake was shifting in temperature from 270 Kelvin to 330 Kelvin which suggests an “overturn” in the volcanic process – that can lead to the formation of a crust, or land.
An occultation is an event that occurs when one object is hidden by another object that passes between it and the observer.
As the team watched Europa cross Io’s path using the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory in Arizona, they were able to get a full look at Loki Patera. The occultation process blocked out all of the external light and allowed for the team to focus only on the heat emitted from the Lake, an impressive feat considering there is over 400 active volcanoes on the surface of Io.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – The most detailed look at Pluto’s surface to date has revealed an unexpected range of mountains, glacial flows, smooth plains and other landscapes, according to studies released on Thursday.
The unprecedented window into the so-called dwarf planet, which orbits the sun like other planets but is smaller, comes via high-resolution photographs from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. The interplanetary space probe made the first-ever visit to Pluto and its five moons last July.
Those images, chemical analyses and other data show a complex, geologically active world 3 billion miles from Earth, with an underground ocean and volcanoes that appear to spew ice, five research papers published in this week’s Science journal said.
“It’s a pretty wild place geologically,” said planetary scientist William McKinnon of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Another scientist described the diversity of landscapes as “astonishing.”
How the varied terrain came to be remains a mystery for the distant Pluto, which has an average surface temperature of minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 229 degrees Celsius).
Scientists suspect several processes at work, including vaporization of volatile ices, such as nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane, into Pluto’s cold and unexpectedly compact atmosphere.
Though smaller than Earth’s moon, Pluto likely still has enough internal heat from its formation some 4.5 billion years ago to help maintain its most prominent feature, a smooth, 620-mile (1,000-km) wide, heart-shaped basin known as Sputnik Planum.
Relatively young mountains west of Sputnik Planum and mounds to the south are harder to explain. Scientists suspect both rest on blocks of water ice, though how that came to exist on Pluto is unknown.
“We are puzzled by almost everything,” said Alan Stern, the New Horizons mission’s lead scientist.
The studies show that Pluto’s primary moon, Charon, had an active life but ran out of naturally occurring radioactive heat in its rocks and froze through about 2 billion years ago.
Scientists now believe Charon and Pluto’s four other small moons owe their existence to a crash between Pluto and another Pluto-sized body early in the solar system’s history.
Similar to Earth’s moon, scientists suspect Pluto’s natural satellites were formed from the debris that was hurled into space after the crash.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bernadette Baum)
New images acquired by Jacob Aron of the New Scientist reveal what may be cloud formation on Pluto.
If these findings are confirmed, it will be considered a massively significant find for scientists world wide – this find would suggest that there is atmospheric activity taking place on Pluto.
The pictures were taken by New Horizons and they have not been publicly released as of yet. The appear to show what seem to be clumps of haze in the form of clouds. Researchers point to a few of these clumps in particular; a possible cloud seen in the bottom right corner of the image.
Currently, scientists aren’t exactly sure the make up of these clouds, but an upcoming paper from the journal Science will attempt to debunk the mystery.
New Scientist acquired the photos when John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, sent an email to the team on March 1st with this message: “In the first image an extremely bright low altitude limb haze above south-east Sputnik on the left, and a discrete fuzzy cloud seen against the sunlit surface above Krun Macula (I think) on the right,”.
“The emails do not discuss what the clouds might be made of,” says New Scientist “They are likely to be of similar composition to the general atmosphere, which according to the team’s upcoming Science paper, consists of nitrogen, with traces of methane, acetylene, ethylene and ethane.”
We’re eagerly awaiting the upcoming story from the journal Science and will be sure to keep you updated with the following information.
Earlier this week NASA released the closest ever view of pluto in as a series of images from New Horizons. The images were taken 15 minutes after it’s closest approach from an altitude of 17,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) above the surface. The high-resolution photos feature details on the scale of a city block.
These new images give us a breathtaking, super-high resolution window into Pluto’s geology. Nothing of this quality was available for Venus or Mars until decades after their first flybys; yet at Pluto we’re there already – down among the craters, mountains and icefields – less than five months after flyby! The science we can do with these images is simply unbelievable.
Alan Stern, New Horizons Principal Investigator
The northern hemisphere of Pluto is home to a massive canyon system spanning hundreds of kilometers. In the feature image above, you can see a small section of this system that closely resembles geography we see here on earth. Scientists suspect that erosion and faulting have sculpted these canyons, as they would on earth, but instead of rain and wind, these ice mountains were subject to the harsh flow of nitrogen and other ices.
In this image you can see what appears to be large sections of Pluto’s ice crust crowded together in the newly dubbed al-Idrisi mountains. Some of these mountain walls reach as high as 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) above surface level. The base of these mountains gives way to a smoother terrain that is composed of softer nitrogen ices that form a near level surface environment.
The mountains bordering Sputnik Planum are absolutely stunning at this resolution. The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations.
John Spencer, Southwest Research Institute
Check out this awesome movie that has been made from image captured by New Horizons. The images are a cross section of Pluto’s surface that span over 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide. The images were captured by Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), who snapped it’s shutter ever three seconds. At the same time the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) was scanning the surface for deeper data.
These close-up images, showing the diversity of terrain on Pluto, demonstrate the power of our robotic planetary explorers to return intriguing data to scientists back here on planet Earth. New Horizons thrilled us during the July flyby with the first close images of Pluto, and as the spacecraft transmits the treasure trove of images in its onboard memory back to us, we continue to be amazed by what we see.
John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate